PHNOM PENH: More than one million Cambodians will not be able to vote in next year's general election after voter registration closed on Thursday (Nov 9).
The registration, which lasted 70 days from Sep 1, was organised by the National Election Committee (NEC) for Cambodians who wished to cast their votes in the 2018 national polls but had failed to register last year.
According to the NEC's data, 536,023 people have registered this time around, although the number is much lower than the 1.6 million estimate.
An estimated 7.8 million Cambodians signed up in the previous round out of 9.8 million that are eligible to vote. Cambodia has a population of 15.8 million.
However, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea maintained the number of registered voters is “high" when compared to other countries. He also said the committee will not extend the registration period because people who did not make it are Cambodians living and working overseas.
“It's common to have some people missing from a voter registration or election,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
For election observers, however, such absence could have great impact on Cambodia's politics.
“We are sorry that people working overseas did not register," said Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia ( NICFEC).
"It means that they have lost their right to vote. We wanted them to register and vote to choose their representatives.”
The absence, he explained, resulted from a complicated voter registration process, which requires Cambodian migrant workers to leave work in order to register for the polls.
"They had to travel back and forth, spending a lot of money. It's also difficult to ask for permission to leave work," said Moeung Manh, a motorbike taxi driver from Prey Veng province.
About 80 per cent of the residents in his village with voting rights work in Thailand, including his two sisters and their spouses. Manh said many villagers did not get to vote in the communal election earlier this year and will also be unable to cast their ballots in next year's polls.
"Some parents also think the political situation is so messed up that they told their children working in Thailand not to come back," he added.
Cambodia's volatile political situation has contributed to the absence of more than one million eligible voters in the registration, according to Kuntheamy.
This year, many media outlets, including several radio stations and outspoken English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily, have seen their operations cease in cases many critics say are politically motivated.
"Cambodian politics has changed a lot; it's getting hotter and hotter," Kuntheamy said.
But his claim is rejected by Sok Eysan, spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
“We are in a free democratic country. People have full freedom to make a decision when taking part in politics as long as it`s in line with the constitution,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
“We did not destroy their rights. They themselves made their rights lost. So you can't blame the ruling party or the government for it.”
OPPOSITION SUPPORTERS REFRAIN FROM VOTING
Meanwhile many supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are reluctant to exercise their voting rights in next year's general election as the party could soon face dissolution.
Its future will be determined at the Supreme Court in less than a week, following a lawsuit filed last month at the Supreme Court by the government lawyers on behalf of the Interior Ministry.
The lawsuit was prompted by the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who was charged with treason over his alleged involvement with foreign agents in their plot to overthrow the current government under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"People feel hopeless as the party they support may have no presence in the general election so they simply don't want to participate in the polls or the registration," said Meng Sotheary, CNRP's director of legislation and electoral affairs.
The hearing over his party's dissolution is set to begin on Nov 16.
Moeun Tola, executive director of human rights organisation CENTRAL, said next year's voter turnout could be low if the political situation does not change.
"The current political climate makes some people don't want to practice their voting rights.”
An opposition supporter Im Sreang supports the claim, saying he might consider to refrain from voting if the CNRP is disbanded.
"It'd be meaningless. I want a competition that's free and fair."