Cambodians Keen to Register to Vote, Turn Out in Droves

Cambodians on Thursday faced long waits, technical glitches and confusion as they turned out in large numbers on the first day of the 90-day voter registration period for elections in the coming years.

Despite the problems and inconvenience, people across the country appeared to be keen to register before local commune elections in 2017 and national parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018.

While local residents in downtown Battambang complained about the wait, they bore it patiently, with one voter telling RFA's Khmer Service they wanted a say in Cambodia's future.

"Yes, we're very happy because we can properly register to vote for the commune election," one resident told RFA. "If we are unable to register, then we cannot vote to choose our leader. If I cannot register, I will regret it because it will define our country's destiny."

Yuom Sokhein, an official with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) in Battambang, told RFA that most of the local people have been well prepared to register and had shown up with the proper documentation.

A new system

She said a computer glitch that could have been caused by the large number of people showed up in the morning to register slowed things down.

Cambodians are using a new digital voter registration system that is designed to combat voter fraud.

Elections in 2013 were dogged by accusations of fraud, and the new system is part of a 2014 election reform deal between the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that ended almost a year of deadlock following the disputed 2013 national ballot.

Rights groups and foreign aid donors, including the European Union, have expressed concern about the election registration process which is unfolding amid rising political tensions in Cambodia.

In particular, National Election Commission (NEC ) Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakriya is in police custody, one of five people arrested by the government in its wide-ranging probe into an alleged affair opposition Cambodia national rescue party leader Kem Sokha had with a young hairdresser.

Comfrel's official in Sihanouk province Cheab Sotheary told RFA that the official in charge of voter registration at the commune office was late and a number of registrars were absent, causing wait times to grow.

"People came and waited and waited a long time at some offices," she said. "The Commune Three voter registration office opened at 8 am, one hour late, and the office's deputy, assistant to the deputy and clerk were absent."

Villagers living in central Siem Reap in the Tonle Sap lake region complained that registration officials were working slowly, and many villagers gave up and walked away after waiting for hours. An official there said they were only able to register 17 people.

Thai Va, a motor-taxi driver who was waiting at the Chong Khneas's registration office, told RFA that he brought his wife and had been waiting since 8 a.m., and their number had yet to be announced by 10 a.m.

"I need time to go back to do my work," he said. "Registering is very slow."

Another woman told RFA that she had been waiting since 8 a.m. and she had to buy food for her children.

"It is now 10 a.m., and I'm standing under the heat of the sun, but still my turn has not come," she said.

Cambodians attempting to register also encountered computer glitches and other interruptions in the process in Kampong Chhnang province.

Certain offices did not facilitate the elderly, the disabled and pregnant women who were supposed to move to the head of the line.

People from other villages who are not in the list for a particular office were also not allow to register.

There were also reports at several commune offices in which the commune chiefs were seen hanging around. Since the commune chiefs are nearly always members of the ruling party, their presence could be viewed as a way to intimidate citizens wishing to register.

A call for better organization

Comfrel official Leap Bun Heng, who was observing the process, called on the National Election Commission (NEC) to sort out the problems.

"The NEC should give further instructions to the commune authorities to have organizers who give proper guidance to people who come to register," he said. "In this first day, I noticed that there were no organizers in front of some offices."

Nuon Chantha, head of the provincial election commission of Kampong Chhnang, acknowledged the many technical problems and other minor issues on the first day, she said that did not interrupt the process.

Election officials need more training, she explained, pointing out that Cambodians from any village in the commune are eligible to register.

"Actually, we are conducting an open registration process at the commune office," she said. "People from any village in the commune can come and register."

She told RFA she was taking steps to make that clear to villagers and to staff.

"They need to go to register with the head or deputy head of the office who will enter their names into the computer system in the respective village," she said. "This is not a restriction. This is wrong, and I will correct that mistake."

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