Amid an increasingly tense political climate and threats to dissolve the country’s main opposition party, Cambodia’s official election body on Thursday ended a controversial voter registration drive.
In a statement last week the National Election Committee (NEC) said only a third of those eligible to register had managed to do so.
According to the latest NEC figures, some 530,000 new voters registered out of a total of 1.6 million unregistered voters.
Som Sorida, NEC deputy secretary-general, said the number of unregistered voters remained comparable with the figure in 2016.
“Though we tried to delay [the deadline], Cambodians abroad didn’t have time to register and perhaps it was difficult for them to travel and register,” he said.
Sorida said that about 8.4 million Cambodians were registered to vote, roughly 85 percent of the electorate, which he said was “acceptable and better compared to other regional countries.”
In 2016, ahead of local elections, the NEC registered some 7.8 million voters.
Hang Puthea, a NEC spokesman, said political tensions had not had a measurable impact on voter registration and that no extensions of the registration period would take place.
Bou Sophal, NEC chief in Sarika Keo commune in Kandal province, said only about 40 percent of eligible voters had registered there, which he said could be due to a large number of migrant workers in the area or possibly an effect of political tensions.
“Perhaps it is because of political tensions. This is just what I predict,” he said. “We don't know the exact reasons. We need to ask them.”
Huon Mala, 29, a grocer in the area, said she registered to vote for the first time ahead of the 2018 election. She said she has not decided which party to vote for. “I don’t care much about politics,” she said. “I just wait to vote.”
Others, however, said they would not vote if the ruling Cambodian People’s Party is successful in its bid to dissolve the country’s main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has been the only challenger to CPP rule since it was formed in 2012.
Eng Chhai Eang, CNRP vice president, claimed the political tensions had had a noticeable impact on voter registration and accused the government of a deliberate attempt to stop voters from registering.
“The ruling party knows that if there are more voters registered, the opposition will gain more support. Thus, they need to find any means to make the registration less,” he said.
Yoeung Sotheara, a legal officer with election watchdog Comfrel, said the voter registration period was acceptable but had not fully met civil society’s expectations.
“Some people registered to vote for the opposition CNRP. If it is dissolved, what is the registration for? They don’t have an option to vote,” he said.