Fighting election fraud: A battle Hun Sen cannot afford to lose

Photo: Daniel Littlewood/CC BY 2.0

A new voter registration system is being introduced in Cambodia to challenge allegations of widespread election fraud. But with deep infrastructure and trust issues across the country it may be doomed from the start. 

By Dimitra Stefanidou

The National Election Committee (NEC) of Cambodia has announced a new computerised voter registration system for upcoming local and national elections.

The new registration drive, starting on September 1 and running until November 29, will include 9.6 million eligible voters. To join the lists citizens will need a national ID card and be over 18 years of age by election day. Anyone that meets both of these criteria will be able to vote; people who fail to take the time to register will be stripped of their ballot.

A history of fraud

These measures are being rolled out as during national elections in July 2013 Cambodia’s main party, the Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, was accused of high-level electoral fraud. The executive director of Human Rights Watch’s in Asia Division, Brad Adams, said that “Senior ruling party officials appear to have been involved in issuing fake election documents and fraudulently registering voters in multiple provinces.” He added, “people from the party seem to have been turning up in places where they clearly don’t live and insisting on voting.”

In some cases, it is alleged the CPP issued fake “Identity Certificates for Elections” for people who didn’t have the necessary documents to vote. These were often from ineligible voters that had moved away or died. As one example, evidence was unearthed that soldiers and their wives, who would otherwise not be allowed to vote in a specific province, had been given counterfeit papers.

There were also incidents of senior CPP officials trying to vote in more than one place and intimidation and death threats against those working for a clean ballot. Mr Adams stated that “Issuing hundreds of thousands of fake identity certificates was allegedly one of the several key ways the ruling party organised large scale election fraud.” He added, “a CPP village chief has confirmed that this happened in his area.”

The establishment of the “new” NEC

As a result of this problem, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) organised a boycott against the ruling party and refused to enter the parliament for a year. To stop the boycott, CNRP demanded the establishment of an independent NEC that would secure open and honest elections in the future. A year later the two parties made an agreement for the creation of a new and reformed NEC, made up of nine members. Four come from the two main parties and there is one independent, mutually agreed by the two sides.

So, how will the new registration system work? The European Union provided the equipment says the head of the department of voter database management, Tob Rethy. He explains, “The names of villages, communes, districts, provinces, capitals and other important details are already included in the program, meaning program users are not allowed to write or add more villages or communes.”

He refused to explain any measures in place to avoid hacking, saying simply that “The voting application cannot be installed on another computer besides the laptop given by the NEC, and the program will alert before it automatically shuts down when the number of registered voters reaches the maximum of 750 [per user account].”

Exorcising ghost voters

The new system will also use biometrics to eliminate “ghost voters.” Mr. Rethy revealed “By linking names to thumbprints, the new electronic voter registration system will prevent people from voting twice under one name, or voting under another person’s name.”

Tep Nytha, the secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), noted that “One good thing is that voters who already registered with the computerised voter registration system cannot register again since their data appeared in the network,” he said. “So, doing electronic registration has barred cheating…in many places.”

The question is whether the new regime can eliminate the fraud risk altogether and officials worry that technology is not enough to ensure transparency. Officially Cambodia has a multiparty democracy but the country has been dominated by one party, the CPP and its president and Prime Minister, Hun Sen, since 1985.

The European Union’s Ambassador to Cambodia, George Edgar, highlighted international worries saying Europe had, “expressed concerns over certain actions of the authorities in implementing legal procedures,” continuing, “Cambodia’s authorities must ensure an atmosphere that all political parties and nongovernmental agencies can do their jobs without obstacles.”

At the same time, the vote also raises the spectre of technical issues related to gaps in internet services, the lack of electricity and voters holding incorrect ID cards; infrastructure issues that are not easily dealt with. In combination; citizens mistrust of the authorities, thirst for change and impatience with a new system may create a dangerous cocktail for Hun Sen and the CPP.

Authorities say every possible measure will be taken to ensure the elections demonstrate the genuine will of the Cambodian electorate – but even if that is to be believed, can their very best efforts truly be good enough? Unless the authorities can deliver on an honest system the people may yet demand change in far more than just voter registration.