Cambodia’s Elections Turn Sour
Asia Report N°3
10 Sep 1998
Cambodia’s electoral process re-lit the candle of democracy that had first flickered into flame with the restoration of peace in 1991, after more than two decades of strife. The light was fanned by United Nations-organised elections in May 1993 and the establishment of a coalition government of former battlefield foes later that year, but it was almost extinguished by the bloody collapse of that fragile coalition in July 1997.
The Paris Peace Accords, signed by Cambodia’s warring factions and underwritten by the international community in October 1993, committed its participants to take the democratic process a step further through elections organised by the Cambodians themselves in 1998. After a period of tense preparation, and in a climate tainted by allegations of voter intimidation and lack of opposition access to the media, the elections were finally held on 26 July 1998.
In many ways, it is a tribute to the determination of the international community and the Cambodians that these elections have taken place at all, given the enormous difficulties – both political and logistical – involved. But the optimism of election night rapidly gave way to anger and criticism as grave post-election problems have come to the surface.
The main opposition parties are refusing to accept the results of the elections until charges of wide-scale electoral fraud are adequately addressed. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, keen to win power legitimately after forcing itself into a coalition in 1993 and taking sole power by force last year, insists the elections were free and fair and cites international support for this assessment.
The CPP, which officially won more than 50 percent of seats with less than 50 percent of the vote in these elections, and some foreign governments want to see a new coalition formed. The international community, keen to move on and frustrated at Cambodia’s lingering internal political unrest, wants stability to return to the trouble-torn nation. Hun Sen seeks stability and legitimacy, but the current political impasse and increasing confrontation with the opposition jeopardises those goals. As the political battle over the election outcome grows more fierce, there is a mounting risk that unrest will boil over into violence. Cambodia is stalled in a highly precarious situation.
While some of the confrontational tactics of the opposition have been irresponsible and inflammatory, their demand for a more thorough and open investigation of complaints by the organisers and arbiters of the polls, the National Election Committee (NEC) and the Constitutional Council, cannot easily be brushed aside.
The patent lack of transparency of these institutions and their stubborn refusal to address serious questions raised by the opposition have stoked the post-polls instability and put the credibility of the electoral process into question. They should make redress by adequately investigating and answering the complaints, both to restore their own credibility and to revive international and domestic confidence in the electoral process. The opposition complaints, whether they prove to be substantiated or not, legally and morally deserve honest consideration. At the same time, the CPP should remain tolerant of dissent and not fear investigations if it has nothing to hide, while the rivals should seek compromise, rather than entrenching themselves in ever widening and confrontational positions.
Cambodia’s bid to take up its suspended seat in the United Nations, join the Association of Southeast Asian and reopen the gates to millions of dollars in development aid are all at risk in the short term unless the current political crisis can be resolved . But democracy could be the long-term loser if Cambodia’s problems are swept under the carpet.
The international community, meanwhile, should not see the elections as the end of its involvement in effort to steer Cambodia towards a brighter future. In developing a future strategy of support, it is essential that donors look at what is best for the medium- to long-term survival of the democratic process, and should not divorce the goal of stability from that of democracy.
This report, third in ICG’s series on Cambodia’s elections, examines developments before, during and since the 26 July 1998 polls and offers suggestions aimed at averting short term instability and at anchoring long term peace, reconciliation and development. Specific policy recommendations are set out in the final section of the report.
Phnom Penh, 10 September 1998
1. The U.N.-brokered accords were signed on 23 October 1991 by Cambodia’s four main warring factions and 19 nations (including the then six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and important donors). The accords provided for building a liberal democracy under the rule of law.