LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE PHNOM PENH POST
From the Secretary General of the NEC
Phnom Penh, 14 September 2006
The letter from HE Sam Rainsy published in the latest issue of Phnom Penh Post may create confusion among voters as it contains a number of flagrant inexactitudes.
The so-called “sudden elimination of previous voters’ cards (1993, 1998 and 2002)”.
Back in 2002, it was to satisfy the opposition parties that the voter’s cards of the previous elections were abandoned as a valid document both to register and to vote. The rationale is that it was alleged that these voters’ cards (initially originating from UNTAC) had been handed out to everyone on the Cambodian territory with little control over the actual citizenship of their recipient, therefore allowing a number of non-Cambodian individuals to register and to vote. The political decision to change the election law and to abandon those voter cards was taken by the National Assembly in an amendment promulgated in November 2002. Exceptionally, these cards were used validly for the last time for the 2003 National Election. On that last occasion, these voters’ cards were only one among a range of documents that were accepted for voting (such as National Id card, passport, ID document certified by the Commune Chief (form 1018), family book with photo and ID cards from civil servant, police, military and monks). Therefore, this is not the first time that Cambodians will have to prove their identity through other means than voters, cards from long-gone elections.
These old voters’ cards could not be used for the 2004 and 2005 annual registrations and they won’t be for the 2006 registration and all future registrations and elections. There is nothing new here. It is therefore quite surprising to read criticism about a so-called “sudden elimination of this document” that had been repeatedly despised by the opposition as giving a free pass to foreigners to vote.
It should also be made clear that were no voters’ cards issued specifically for the 2003 election as hinted in the letter. Similarly, the assertion that the suppression of the voters’ cards is “the NEC’s initiative” is disingenuous since this decision belonged exclusively to the National Assembly who has adopted the amendment to that effect in the legal framework that NEC is simply bound to implement.
The so-called “imposition of new registration and voting procedures” by the NEC
The assertion that the NEC has changed the voter registration period and its procedures is both untrue and deceptive. As imposed by the electoral law, the period for voter registration begins on October 1st and ends on December 31st; not in the worst of the rainy season from August to October as mentioned in HE Sam Rainsy’s letter.
More importantly, these is no “new registration and voting procedures” imposed by anyone. The 2006 voter registration due to begin in October is, in all respects, similar to the one of 2004 and 2005 for which no substantive complaints were received from the opposition.
Let me emphasize that whatever the NEC undertakes as advertisement campaign to voter and leaflet distribution, such as the voter information notice, before October, belongs strictly to the domain of voter information. By no means can it be branded as “new procedure” generating new obligations or, even worse, be assimilated with the voter registration process itself. Nothing whatsoever in the NEC’s voter information activities undertaken until now would have for effect to deprive voters from their right to register during the registration period or to get their name corrected on the voters’ list if so needed. To the contrary.
It is similarly wrong to assert that “For the first time, potential voters (…) are asked to check the accuracy of their personal election-related data…”. The truth is that for the past three years, at each annual voter registration, the NEC made a huge effort to do just that: convince potential voters in the weeks preceding registration to come over to the office of the Commune/Sangkat to check the accuracy of their registration. However, NEC’s efforts were met only with mitigated success; only small numbers came over to ensure that their name was properly registered and require corrections. Nevertheless, over 290,000 voters registered in 2004 and 234,000 in 2005. To remedy the apathy of the already registered electorate to check their name, the NEC decided basically to bring an extract of the list to the voters so that they can see for themselves if their personal data is correct or not: hence the personalized Voter Information Notice.
At this date, over 76% of these leaflets have been distributed to the registered voters. We already know that at least 5% of the leaflets could not be distributed because their recipients have either move to another commune or are deceased. The actual figure of notices having reached voters is therefore over 81% at this date. It is only at the end of the voter registration process that we will measure the success of this new NEC’s voter awareness campaign through the additional number of voters who will actually come over to register or correct their name during the coming registration period.
The so-called obligation to “wait to receive your personal Voter Information Notice”
HE Sam Rainsy alleges that voters “must wait to receive the Notice” and failing to do so may imperil their right. He goes on describing all kinds of “special demarche required at the commune office… to ensure that you will be able to vote at the next elections”. According to him, another “demarche” is required if there is an error on the list “to put things right” so to preserve your voting right. Failure to get the notice and go through all these “demarches” puts you on Election Day at the mercy of “election officials with discretionary power to turn you down”.
The above strives to portray the registration and voting process as a convoluted system elaborated to discourage voters to register through a maze of “demarches” and eventually deprive them from their right to vote through arbitrary decisions.
The reality is much simpler. In fact, it is relevant to remind the following:
• Over 94% of Cambodians are already registered on the permanent and annually updated voters list (figures from the 2005 voter registration)
• The remaining 6% of potential voters who are not on the list and who want to register should do so between October 1st and October 20th. The procedure is simple and exactly the same as in 2004 and 2005.
• Those whose name or data on the voters’ list appears substantially inaccurate can ask for modification/correction during the registration period.
Contrary to what is alleged in HE Sam Rainsy’s letter, no one “must wait” to receive any notice. The notice is just a tool to help the voter check his/her registration. It saves him/her the trouble of going to the office of the Commune/Sangkat to check the accuracy of his/her data. The notice is strictly informative: it is as if the NEC had posted the voter’s list on all dwellings of Cambodia. It is not needed to register, correct one’s name or to vote. No “special demarches” are needed to register on the voters’ list or to get your name corrected.
By definition, unregistered voters could not, did not and will not get any notice of information for the simple reason that, not being registered, the NEC has no means of knowing who they are! Therefore, it cannot address to them a personalized invitation to register. The unregistered voters will be targeted by a separate campaign of information through media, posters, mobile speakers, etc. to begin soon.
The NEC vigorously denies “creating unnecessary and untimely work and procedures for people most of whom are unable to do it”. In fact, it is quite the opposite because the information notice saves a trip to the Commune/Sangkat to check the list. To pretend that most Cambodians are unable to check the accuracy of their name on a slip of paper is demeaning to the Cambodian population. With a literacy rate of over 60% and with the traditional support provided by the family/community, checking one’s name on the voters’ list is not the insurmountable obstacle to voter registration that he tries to describe.
The letter, published in a foreign language newspaper, also reads that “NEC’s initiative could practically end up depriving millions of citizens of their voting rights”. The NEC considers this contention not only as a wrong understanding of the process, but also as a flawed presumption discrediting the elections in the eyes of the international community.
This could create the impression that millions of voters need to register in addition to millions that must correct their registration data in order to preserve their right to vote.
Common sense and reality shows otherwise: 6.7 million voters are already duly registered; there are approximately 300,000 new voters that are entitled to register each year. This amounts to an average of only 9 new voter registrations per day per commune during the 21 days of the registration process, hardly an overwhelming task. In addition, as in any country with a permanent electoral list, the procedure for correcting a name is swift and easy: simply show up with any legal ID document and the Clerk of the Commune/Sangkat will fill the paperwork for the correction to be done.
And what if names are not corrected? Here is it most important to emphasize the strict regulations published by the NEC to that effect. In short: if a voter shows up with an Id showing a recognizably a photo of him/herself AND that the spoken sound of the name scripted on his/her Id document is roughly the same than what appears on the voters’ list (regardless of the actual spelling), then, this voter must be allowed to vote. Officials at the polling station have no discretion whatsoever to decide who can vote or not on the basis of spelling mistakes on Id documents. Only in cases where the name sounds entirely different than what is on the voters’ list may the official decide to reject the voter. This procedure worked well in 2003 as testified by the absence of complaints from political parties and observers specifically in implementing this no-nonsense approach in view of the multiple ways to write one’s name in Khmer.
Finally, HE Sam Rainsy also alleges that voter information was distributed selectively, excluding systematically his supporters. In that respect, the NEC acknowledges its disappointment towards the performance of a number of village chiefs who have not understood the importance of their work and their duty of neutrality as they are bound by law to represent all villagers, regardless of political allegiance. In spite of our repeated calls, the political parties have not brought a single complaint to our attention on which we could have take action. General unsubstantiated allegations in the newspapers are not conducive for the NEC to taken corrective action against specific individual offenders. Nevertheless, the NEC has issued a stringent directive that is about to be distributed to all village chiefs to clarify their duties and obligations of neutrality, subject to sanction in case of non-compliance.
Personally, I welcome the critics from all our partners. However, the NEC cannot tolerate the propagation of factually erroneous information and ill-conceived presumptions with not other purpose than to damage the standing of the NEC and to disparage pointlessly the Cambodian democratic process. Should it be recalled that the International Community is currently considering its financial support for the coming Commune Council elections.
It is the duty of the NEC to correct flawed and misleading information and to answer any and all such damaging assertions. At anytime, the NEC is open to provide accurate information to political parties and their leaders in meetings and working groups.
Of course, the NEC is learning from its mistakes. Now, how can we do it better? Since political parties are now equipped with the electoral list available to them, they could participate more actively to ensure that their supporters are properly registered on the voters’ list.
Cambodia has gained significant experience in election management; I suggest that all tasks be not handled by the NEC alone. All partners, including political parties and NGOs, should work hand in hand with us. The election process would gain efficiency and transparency.
I would like to thank you very much for bringing this important point to your readers’ attention.
National Election Committee
The Public Information Bureau of the National Election Committee
E-mail Address: email@example.com
Fax/Phone: 023 214 374, (012) 855 018
Website Address: www.necelect.org.kh