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Faulty Voter Rolls Could Undermine Cambodia’s July Elections

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 10 2013 (IPS) - With the Cambodian national assembly elections fast approaching on Jul. 28, local and international organisations are expressing concerns about the fairness and transparency of the electoral system.

According to an audit of the Cambodian voter registry conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S. government-funded entity, almost 11 percent of eligible citizens wrongly believe themselves to be registered to vote.

“Cambodia should rise above a mechanical application of democracy ." -- U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Surya P. Subedi

“These citizens will show up to the polling stations on election day and not be able to vote,” Peter Manikas, NDI’s regional director for Asia, told IPS. “Further, more than 10 percent of the names listed on the voters’ list are invalid, of unknown people, presenting an opportunity for fraud on election day.”

The results of the audit haven’t been accepted by the Cambodian National Election Committee (NEC), which maintains that the number of names on the voter registry represents 101.7 percent of the eligible population, even more than the actual number of eligible citizens, in stark contrast with NDI’s findings that only show an 82.9 percent registration rate.

The extra names in the NEC registry data “could be duplicates or could be those of unknown/non-existent people,” Manikas told IPS.

Irregularities in the voter registry are also cited in a report compiled by the Phnom Penh-based Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) just after the last commune council elections in June 2012, as well as in the last report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya P. Subedi, dated July 2012.

Some of Subedi’s recommendations to the Cambodian government “could have been implemented within a short period of time without requiring many additional resources if there had been the political will to do so,” he told IPS.

The present electoral system requires every eligible citizen to register in order to vote, which can only be done in September and October, nine months before the election, and in the place of one’s own residency. This will potentially disenfranchise those who change their residency within nine months of the polls, as well as the homeless and evicted, who are unable to show proof of residency.

A “dire need for electoral reform” in the longer term is called for in NDI’s report. Subedi has made similar recommendations, and hopes for a more independent NEC, composed of neutral and high-level personalities able to represent all political parties in a balanced way.

A democracy trapped in patronage networks

Electoral malpractice, such as vote buying, use of state resources for political campaigns, threats and intimidation of some candidates and unequal access to media for all parties have been monitored over the years by organisations like COMFREL.

According to Trude Jacobsen, assistant director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University, Cambodian political culture is deeply informed by patron-client networks, in which votes are given in exchange for protection and personal favours.

“People would vote according to whoever is at the top of their [patronage network], it has nothing to do with what they actually think about elections,” she told IPS.

“No one would do anything to change the status quo at the bottom because it is simply not in their best interest,” she said, as they rely on political patronage connections for daily needs, such as having a job or sending their children to school.

Change can only come from the future generation of political leaders who are being exposed to alternative models outside Cambodia and will hopefully be “willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the greater good”, said Jacobsen.

Another reason for concern is the decreasing voter turnout in the last years, which could be a sign of voters’ frustration with the current electoral system.

However, according to NDI, 92.8 percent of eligible citizens plan to vote on Jul. 28, which is a notably high percentage in a country in which voting is not compulsory.

Several rallies organised by opposition parties in the last months have gathered crowds of thousands, but according to Jacobsen, participants are not all authentic political supporters. Some of them are paid to attend, a practice widely used by both governing and opposition parties.

Following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, which gave the U.N. the responsibility to supervise peacebuilding operations and the first democratic elections, the country embarked on a democratisation process and went seven times to the polls, for the national assembly (1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008) and commune council elections (2002, 2007 and 2012).

July’s elections will renew for another five-year term the 123 seats of the national assembly, which is the lower house of the Cambodian parliament, and the winning party will be assigned the task of forming a new government.

The current ruling coalition of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the royalist party FUNCINPEC is expected to remain in power, defeating the opposition’s Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and extending for another five years the already 28-year-long tenure of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Land has become a pivotal issue, in a country where 80 percent of the population is involved in subsistence farming but 20 percent of agricultural families are landless, due in part to the government’s scheme of leasing millions of hectares of agricultural land to mammoth multinational corporations.

“Cambodia should rise above a mechanical application of democracy … ,” said Subedi in his report, “and implement the fundamental principles and spirit behind the notion of the rule of law.”

“The country has come a long way since the Paris Peace Accords, but it still has some way to go to meet the international standards in a number of areas including the holding of transparent, free and fair elections,” he told IPS.

According to Jacobsen, “The mistake that was made was expecting people to be able to come out of a 20-year civil conflict and then adapt to Western models immediately,” with the result that the existing conception of political power as a patron-client relationship survived under the surface.

“It’s not going to be an immediate change,” she added, “and certainly not for this election.”

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