Cambodia's Flawed Elections: Why Cambodia will not be Ready for Free and Fair Elections on 26 July 1998
Cambodia is set to take to the polls in barely six weeks time, with some fearing the elections will cement in place a de facto dictatorship and others seeing them as the last chance to ensure that the country’s fledgling democratic process remains on track.
The elections are slated to take place on 26 July 1998, despite the resurrection of a boycott threat from opposition parties, who say the polls should be put back several months on the basis that current conditions in the country will not support as free and fair elections.
The upcoming polls come five years after the United Nations helped Cambodia take its first tottering steps towards democracy by running landmark general elections that brought a coalition government of former battlefield foes to power after years of autocracy.
The 1991 Paris Peace Accords (PPA) and the country’s 1993 constitution envisaged free and fair, multi-party elections every five years. This commitment was jeopardised by the violent break up last July of the coalition led by First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, of the formerly communist Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The prospect of internationally-supported and recognised elections in 1998 -- vital for anchoring the democratic process launched in 1993 -- looked remote as recently as the end of last 1997. But compromise, commonsense and international pressure in the months since the de facto coup together with Hun Sen’s determination to be seen to win power legally through the ballot box, and his call for foreign electoral assistance, created a more conducive climate. In January 1998, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report examining the problems facing preparations for these elections to a 122-member National Assembly . The report offered a number of specific recommendations aimed at shoring up political stability, ensuring that the polls are as free and fair as possible and contributing to the long term survival of the democratic process in the troubled Southeast Asian nation .
Some of the conditions spelt out in ICG’s report have been met, most notably the return of Prince Ranariddh and his entry into the political campaign, but there remain serious shortcomings in key areas that could adversely affect the chances of free and fair elections.
Political conditions remain flawed -- voter intimidation continues, especially out in the provinces, and the CPP continues to dominate the campaign while the opposition is thwarted by lack of access to the media, especially broadcast media. In addition, a number of significant technical problems have also arisen that will be difficult to resolve before the current 26 July 1998 deadline.
The country’s main opposition parties have affirmed their commitment to elections in principle but have threatened to boycott polls held on 26 July 1998 because they cannot be considered free and fair under current conditions. The reasons they cite should be taken seriously by the government, election organisers and the international community.
The National United Front (NUF) alliance of four anti-government parties, clearly and perhaps naively counting on international support, have said the elections should be held later in the year when several specific conditions have been met. Their boycott threat came just weeks after the international community had finally agreed to back the process after diplomatic pressure had secured Ranariddh’s participation in the polls.
Delay polling day until October or November …
To ensure the best technical and political conditions for free and fair elections, ICG recommends that the elections be postponed until October or November and that parliament’s mandate be extended to allow for this. Postponement of elections is not desirable and should not be indefinite but putting back the polls by a few months should allow for technically proficient dry-season selections to be held in a more neutral political environment. It should also give the Constitutional Council time to find its feet and review electoral legislation.
…use all available leverage to insist on improvements in the political environment…
The international community should use its influence to press for elections, pointing out that it would not be able to support elections held under inhospitable conditions. The United Nations and Friends of Cambodia have made clear their misgivings about the political climate and steps need to be taken immediately to improve the environment and to allow for free and fair elections towards the end of the year.
Towards this aim, the ICG recommends that:
The NEC and electoral watchdogs step up civic education programmes, stressing the secrecy of the vote and the right to choose one’s party of choice. The NEC take a firm stand against intimidation, urgently investigate reports of such and hand down stiff sanctions against those found guilty of trying to coerce registered voters into voting for particular parties. The CPP widely disseminate Hun Sen’s condemnation of intimidation, pledges to transfer power in the case of electoral loss and undertakings that all parties should be able to open offices and solicit support freely. The government allow all registered parties access to state media and immediately issue licences to those seeking to open radio and television stations. The NEC media amend its regulations to allow for parties to use their own broadcasting facilities under strict supervision to prevent inflammatory battles of the air waves. The rules should also be extended to cover the pre-campaign period. The government scrap legislation giving civil servant immunity from prosecution The government show its commitment to the rule of law by produce concrete results of investigations into major human rights abuses, including politically-motivated killings since July last year and the March 30, 1997 grenade attack.
…and increase the number of long-term observers in Cambodia to monitor the election…
The more disinterested eyes watching the elections the better and the ICG urges foreign governments to fund the dispatch of many more long-term observers. They should preferably be in Cambodia to observe the entire election campaign period and should remain in the country until a new government has been formed. A true evaluation of the fairness, freeness and credibility of the elections can only be made by looking at the process as a whole rather than the week straddling polling day.
There would, ideally, be one international observer at each of the 1,992 commune centres on election day – this would encourage people to vote freely and officials to act honestly.