As Cambodian officials rolled out a new voter registration system on Thursday, questions were raised about the nation’s ability to conduct free and fair elections.
While Cambodian authorities announced a three-month registration process that will run from Sept. 1 to Nov. 29, the U.N. ambassador to Cambodia expressed concern that the country’s current political situation could poison the process.
“The European Union has expressed concerns over certain actions of the authorities in implementing legal procedures against the opposition party’s officials, civil society’s representatives, and the National Election Commission (NEC) deputy general secretary,” said Ambassador George Edgar.
“Cambodia’s authorities must ensure an atmosphere that all political parties and nongovernmental agencies are able to do their jobs without obstacles,” he added during a ceremony announcing the launch of the registration system.
NEC Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakriya is 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 named Khom Chandaraty.
Staffers with the rights group ADHOC Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony were also arrested in the probe. Ny Chakrya and the activists are charged with bribery or accessory to bribery for allegedly attempting to pay Khom Chandaraty hush money.
The charges are viewed by many as an attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to smear the opposition before local elections in 2017 and national elections in 2018.
While Hun Sen and the CPP have ruled the country for more than three decades, Cambodia’s ruling party suffered a dramatic drop in support during the country’s last election in 2013, and could see even more erosion in the upcoming elections.
Edgar was not the only one raising concerns, as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) also took issue with the transparency of the process.
COMFREL official Sin Tit Seiha said government recruiting of polling officials in Cambodia’s northwestern Battambang province was suspect as he questioned the number of former NEC officials who were selected.
“COMFREL has two projects. First, to observe the registration list once it has been generated,” he said. “We will look into it, then we can make the assessment.”
A Battambang election official disputed that notion, saying the selection of the officials was an open one.
“During the exam, officials from the national level as well as the provincial level came down,” said Battambang Election Commission Secretary Vorn Porn.
Vorn Porn told RFA that there are many former NEC officials among the 430 contractors who were recruited, but did not give the total.
“The controllers of the exams were from the districts, with three from each district, and commune councils from every political party came to observe,” he explained.
The NEC was revamped last year, as part of a deal in July 2014 which saw opposition lawmakers return to the National Assembly following a 10-month boycott protesting a disputed national election in 2013.
The CPP was declared victorious in the 2013 election, sparking widespread protests and allegations of government control of the NEC, which oversees polls in the country.
Reported by Khe Sonorng and Hum Hour. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.