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2003 election a democracy barometer

Cambodia's 2003 election will mark the end of the international community's decade

long experiment in promoting democracy in Cambodia, at least in terms of providing

hefty subsidies for elections.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy maintains the experiment has proved a failure. Rainsy

claims that ten years after the UN-sponsored vote, elections have merely provided

a democratic veneer to a profoundly undemocratic nation.

"Despite some trappings of democracy, Cambodia's government is more akin to

the regimes in Zimbabwe, Iraq and Kyrgyz-stan," he told a November 11 audience

at the Community of Democracies Ministerial Meeting in South Korea.

"Its absence from the league table of democracies should be shocking, considering

that Cambodia was the beneficiary of a $2 billion United Nations peacekeeping mission,"

he said.

A substantial amount of money has indeed been invested in Cambodia's electoral process.

The 1998 national election cost around $28 million, while the bill for the commune

elections came in at $16 million.

Next year's vote, which is flagged for July 27, is expected to be cheaper, but will

also be the last in which the international community will foot most of the bill.

That is one of several ways in which next year's national elections will mark a turning

point for Cambodia, says political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak. After 2003, democratization

will require domestic political will.

In the most recent Cambodia Development Review Sopheak, the coordinator of the Cambodia

Development Resource Institute's (CDRI) Center for Peace and Development, wrote that

"the decision to hold elections [in the future] will be based on the a conscious

choice of the Cambodian people, not on financial pledges from the international community".

Sopheak is confident that ordinary Cambodians do not want to see the democratic experiment

die when the donor funds begin to run out.

"Cambodian people will not easily accept the loss of their new freedoms,"

he says. "Any political player will have to be very careful how they handle

this after 2003.

"A culture of opposition is taking shape. People are used to seeing the opposition

debating in the National Assembly," says Sopheak, who sees evidence that Cambodians

are now more comfortable in speaking out.

"Now people can demonstrate, they can have a strike, now there is a culture

of dialogue and opposition. In 1998 there was none," he says. "The situation

is still far from ideal, but we can begin to recognize progress."

However, when Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke in Bangkok last month, he signaled that

security was a higher priority for his government than maintaining a 'culture of


He told the audience that certain elements had abused the right to freedom of speech

to promote propaganda, including inciting people to terrorist acts. He said that

governments needed to protect the security of the population at large.

Maintaining a culture of opposition may also be working against what some argue is

Cambodia's historical tendency to suppress opponents through superficial democracy.

American scholar Steve Heder concluded in 1998 that the country's regimes have historically

always "used balloting processes to legitimize their domination with electoral

trappings and as an opportunity to repress their political enemies".

Elections, he argued, "were at worst a means of violently strengthening an already

existing political monopoly. At best they were a vehicle for political contestation

between state incumbents vying to use their control over state mechanisms".

Khem Sokha, the former Funcinpec senator and currently director of the Cambodian

Center for Human Rights (CCHR), leans towards Heder's view.

"I think Cambodia is a paper democracy," Sokha says. "We have some

of the elements but not the implementation as yet. Now we have democracy but it is

like the old car. It goes, but not very fast."

But Sopheak argues that Cambodia must be seen in the context of other post-conflict


"If you compare it to other post conflict societies, to countries in Africa

and Latin America, then Cambodia comes out well."

He says that widespread participation in the electoral process is evidence that,

among political players, there is broad acceptance of the "rules of the game".

He cites the formulation of the new National Election Committee as proof.

"Everybody got a chance to propose something. Maybe not everybody is satisfied

with the result, but everyone had a chance to contribute. This is a huge difference

from 1998," says Sopheak.

He points out that once a month the representatives from each of the three major

political parties join members of civil society at CDRI for roundtable discussions

on conflict prevention.

"Can you imagine - in a country like Cambodia - having forty consecutive roundtable

discussions where parties have a chance to question each other directly?" Sopheak

asks. "If we continue to engage all the players, then we will make the process

more acceptable."

Sokha, on the other hand, is concerned at just how engaged ordinary Cambodians are.

He feels they lost faith after the 1993 election, in which Funcinpec won, and elements

of the previously incumbent Cambodian People's Party (CPP) threatened war unless

power was shared.

"In 1993 people believed that the international community would protect them.

They thought if they voted for change, then things would change. But there was still

corruption and after the election they lost confidence, so they thought 'I'll just

vote for whoever gives me something'," he says.

Sokha's new NGO will be concentrating on nationwide human rights and democracy education

in the lead up to the national vote. A key message of CCHR will be: "To sell

your vote is to sell your rights; that equates to selling your life."

He believes that in a truly free and fair plebiscite, the ruling CPP would be in


"I spend a lot of time with the grass roots and talk to a lot of people. Without

intimidation and violence the majority would not support the CPP," he says.

The critical test for valid elections is whether a peaceful transfer of power can

take place. In a climate where Hun Sen's government is expected to win easily, the

elections will only further serve to legitimize power. Sokha believes an anti-CPP

vote would provide the test of democracy.

"Only the dictator never respects the election, unless there's pressure from

the people and pressure from the international community," Sokha says.

But Sopheak is more confident that democracy has taken hold and the CPP would relinquish

power if it lost.

"Why not?" he asks. He maintains that the outcome of the 1993 election

is not a valid comparison.

"In '93 it was during UNTAC and we had just come out of war. There was a lack

of trust and a lack of confidence in the process. There was a lot of suspicion about

whether UNTAC had a secret agenda. For a lot of people this question is still not

answered," he says.

Sopheak believes the next elections could be the most free and fair to date, and

argues that no party is guaranteed victory. The transparency of the voter registration

period, set to begin on January 17, will be the "moment of truth," he says.

"Two-million people who did not vote in the commune elections will register

to vote next July, including one million first-time voters," he says.

That is enough to suggest that the CPP's clean sweep in the commune elections may

have little bearing in 2003. It even raises the slim possibility that the CPP may

not win, providing the country with the ultimate test of its democracy - a peaceful

transfer of power.



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