Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) is preparing to enter the names of the country’s 10 million or so eligible voters into a new high-tech system that it is hoped will give the electoral roll more credibility in time for hotly anticipated elections.
Duplicated and missing names have dogged the lists at previous elections, and election monitors are concerned that the NEC has not yet begun digitizing the lists. Commune-level elections are expected as early as June 2017.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Commission for Free and Fair Elections, or COMFREL, said the registration process is a significant task for an understaffed and underfunded NEC.
“This time they have to register all voters again. That means people who are already registered need to come and register again as now there’s a new registration system,” Kuol Panha said, explaining that as well as those who have already voted in previous polls, those who have recently passed the voting age, 18, will also have to be registered.
“It’s a computer system and you need to input data like photos and fingerprints into the computer.”
Koul Panha said the government should set a date for the elections as soon as possible to make the NEC’s work easier—in particular determining which young voters will be eligible.
“This is an issue—we have not set a clear election date,” he said. “The second issue is the political atmosphere. We are seeing many problems because the opposition party faces strong pressure from the authorities, the government and the National Assembly.”
“The opposition seems not to have prepared at all to participate in election registration or the election yet. That is because the political atmosphere is tense and there could be violations creating fear among opposition activists, the people and opposition supporters, especially the CNRP,” he added, referring to the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“This is a problem that we are concerned about for the registration and the election work in the future.”
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, lost 22 seats in the 2013 National Election as the CNRP, a newly united opposition force, made large gains. In response, the ruling party is strengthening its local and national-level election strategies, hoping to win back some popularity.
Sam Kuntheamy, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, or NICFEC, another election monitoring group, said further delays in registering voters could cause difficulties for parties hoping to begin their campaign preparations. He suggested that the process should be started before the rainy season.
“If the voter registration is done in September, it will face many difficulties—based on my experience—because September is the rainy season,” he told VOA Khmer.
“Before, when registration was held in September and October, there were a lot of difficulties thanks to the rainy season. This makes it difficult for the voters.
“Second, registering voters in September would end in December—the registration will take three months because it is the new voter list. If it goes beyond December, we could face problems. If the Commune Elections take place in June, as in the last term, it’s too close and a very short time.”
If registration cannot be completed on time, the old voter lists, which are riddled with problems, would have to be used, he added.
The head of the NEC, Sik Bun Hok, met last month with Japanese Ambassador Yuji Kumamaru and European Union Ambassador George Edgar to discuss cooperation in expediting the registration, the committee said in a statement.
NEC officials were not authorized to talk to the media, but told VOA Khmer that the E.U. would be providing computers to help with the new lists. The NEC is also waiting for the government to tell it when the elections will be held, officials said, on condition on anonymity.
Many new political parties are planning to compete in next year’s Commune Elections, although the NEC has not yet allowed them to register.
As well as electing local decision makers, the polls are important at a national level, since commune officials elect the senators that fill the upper house of Cambodia’s parliament. In the last such election, held in 2012, the CPP won a sweeping majority, taking the commune chief positions in 1,592 out of 1,630 communes and a total of 8,292 commune council seats.