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Big Election Turnout? Not for Cambodians

The victory of US president-elect Barack Obama surprised the world Tuesday, but another surprise was the high number of US voters, perhaps the most in 100 years.

The high number was amazing for the US, but if Cambodia put up the same numbers in an election, election experts say, it would be worrisome.

“The worry is that when the [Cambodian] participation rate is down, it is usually linked with intimidation and threat,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. “But [US citizens] are in a democratic country; they have full freedom to express their opinions.”

US citizens have been voting for more than 200 years, 44 presidential election cycles, he said.

According to Real Clear Politics, a monitoring group, an estimated 64.1 percent of registered voters participated in Tueday’s US election. That is higher than in any presidential election since 1908, when William Howard Taft won and 65.7 percent of voters turned out.

By comparison, the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy saw a 63.8 percent turnout, while the election of George W. Bush in 2004 drew 55.3 percent.

In Cambodia’s national election this July, turnout fell to 75 percent from more than 90 percent in the 1993 Untac polls.

Members of civil society and opposition officials say the lowered turnout has a negative effect of the democratic process here.

“The turnout of more than 60 percent is a high score in the US presidential election, compared with the past US elections,” said Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections. “But for Cambodia, like a country in transitional democracy, the absence of voters is due to buying votes and other problems that prevent voters from deciding to vote.”

“If the turnout in Cambodia is down, it’s because the people do not have any more confidence in the election process,” said Ke Sovannaroth, acting secretary-general of the Sam Rainsy Party, which sent a letter of congratulations to Obama and US voters Thursday. “They lack information for voting. They receive threats and intimidation.”

However, National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nitha said the threats and intimidation was not the real cause of the lower turnout in July.

“There were many threats during the 1993 election, and the turnout was more than 90 percent,” he said. “But in 2008, voters were safer, but the turnout was down. It is different, compared to the US election. In the US election, they voted for change.”

In 2008, more than 8 million Cambodians registered to vote. In 2013, that number is expected to reach 9.5 million.