Report / Asia 2 minutes

Cambodia’s Flawed Elections

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.

Executive Summary

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)[fn]The U.N.-brokered accords were signed by Cambodia’s four main warring factions and 19 nations (including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and important donors. They provided for building a liberal democracy operating under the rule of law.)
 Hide Footnote
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.[fn]Two new seats have been created, including one representing the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla base of Pailin in western Cambodia
 Hide Footnote
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.[fn]

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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.