PHNOM PENH — With less than 24 hours until polls open in Cambodia's hotly contested general election, monitors have warned that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers to stop them casting more than one ballot can be washed off in minutes.
In June the Indian Embassy proudly announced that it had donated 40,000 bottles of indelible ink to Cambodia's National Election Committee.
The gift from the world's largest democracy is designed to prevent people from being able to vote twice - a particular concern in Cambodia given that the more than nine-million-strong voting register is riddled with errors, among them around a million so-called 'ghost voters.'
On Friday the National Election Committee, or NEC - which oversees elections - held a meeting where a number of NGOs, including independent election monitoring non-profit Comfrel, were invited to test the ink.
Comfrel's executive director, Koul Panha, explains what happened next:
“Two Comfrel staff gone to the test with NEC. After that we tried to work with some liquid and then we found out that the indelible ink on the finger of our staff can be removed easily with the simple liquid.”
Washing off the ink, says Koul Panha, took just four minutes. At a news conference Saturday, Comfrel screened a video that showed their staff removing the ink.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha says the Indian Embassy has not yet been in touch about the allegation, adding that India has donated ink since 1998. And, he adds, he simply does not know how Comfrel managed to remove what should have been indelible ink. He said poll monitors Sunday would closely inspect voters' fingers for signs of ink.
Comfrel will not say what substance was used, because it wants to preclude people from trying to remove the ink. But Koul Panha did say that it was widely available in local markets and costs just a few cents.
On its own, says Koul Panha, the easy removal of the ink is not necessarily a problem.
But combined with the fact that there are tens of thousands of duplicate names, a million ghost voters on the register, and hundreds of thousands of quickie ID cards that the authorities have handed out, he says the potential for abuse is obvious.
The NEC’s recent announcement that poll monitors from political parties may not bring their own voter lists into polling stations to provide an additional check only compounds the problem, says Koul Panha.
“These two issues is very [big] concern - that very (much) affect the outcome of election if any someone, some group’s intention to make a fraud, to manipulate of the voting through the double, triple vote. So this is very great concern.”
Comfrel questioned whether the ink the NEC provided for testing is the same ink that India donated. VOA was unable to reach a representative from the Indian Embassy in Phnom Penh for comment.
Meanwhile ahead of Sunday's vote, many expect the ruling Cambodian People's Party to keep its majority, though it could lose some of the 90 seats it controls in the 123-member parliament. Prime Minister Hun Sen is widely expected to retain his standing as Asia's longest-serving prime minister.
On Saturday, one of the prime minister's biggest critics lashed out at him in a news conference in Phnom Penh. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy blasted the decision by the National Assembly to deny him the ability to run in the election.
"So there is no real fight among the two candidate for prime minister because the outgoing prime minister is a coward. So any victory under such circumstances is worthless."
More than nine million voters are registered for Sunday's polls. Although preliminary results are expected Sunday evening, final results are not expected for up to a month.