"FREE and fair" - or "fad and fashion", as one Khmer academic
dubs it - is the catchcry of elections '98. At times, they seem like magic words
to release a genie from a bottle: repeat them enough and maybe it will materialize.
As many as 50% of Cambodians may have got the message, and say they believe that
free, fair and credible elections are possible, according to one survey. But the
reality is that it's hard to find anyone involved in politics, bar a Prime Minister
or two, who believes this is anything but a pipe dream.
Putting aside human rights and democracy advocates, if you ask virtually any Khmer
politician, civil servant or NGO worker whether the polls will be free and fair,
you are rewarded with a wry, knowing smile. Privately, no one has any illusions.
Publicly, the environment is so free and fair that almost no one will put their names
to anything but the blandest of statements about politics and elections.
In line with the reality, Cambodia's election vocabulary is expanding rapidly, courtesy
of foreign donors. The new words are qualifiers: Free and fair has become "free-ish
and fair-ish"; diplomats speak of "relatively" or "reasonably"
free and fair elections, of "credible" or "acceptable" polls,
and of "unacceptable" - versus "acceptable" - levels of violence
Relative to what, and reasonable, credible and acceptable to whom, is usually left
unsaid, except for references to "the Southeast Asian context". Like any
good election campaign promise, the wording is loose.
The fundamental reason why the election will not be free and fair, almost everyone
agrees, is that Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won't give up power if it
loses. Unless the CPP believes it is popular enough to win a truly free and fair
ballot, such a vote cannot be allowed. And, in a country where power has long come
from the barrel of a gun, where there has been minimal experience of free elections,
and where the CPP was bitterly shocked at its election loss in 1993, why should the
party take chances this time?
Given that 26,000 foreign peacekeepers failed to prevent the killing or wounding
of 100 Funcinpec activists and hundreds of incidents of intimidation in the 1993
UN-sponsored "free and fair" elections - which the CPP still failed to
win - "there is a high probability that military force will be used to ensure
that we arrive at the appropriate election result" in '98, as one veteran foreign
observer puts it.
From the foreign funders of the elections, to the Khmer politicians planning to take
their chances in them, everyone knows that Cambodian democracy extends only so far
as CPP maintains dominance; the only question about the next government is which
party or parties will play the role of coalition partner to CPP.
Why bother with elections, then? For the CPP, there are obvious benefits. To a
party which has never had indisputable legitimacy - born out of the Vietnamese occupation
of the 1980s, and which took an international battering after the events of last
July - the stamp of being a "democratically-elected, internationally-recognized"
government is attractive. Not least of all, it promises to get foreign aid, investment
and tourism back on track, pumping new life into a stagnating economy.
The bottom line, according to one senior CPP official who spoke to the Post, is that
party leaders want elections they know they cannot lose. They are extremely reluctant
to have a re-run of '93, when the CPP refused to recognize the result, and threatened
violence in order to secure a larger slice of a coalition government than its votes
In '98, the official says, if the party believes that it is doomed at the ballot
boxes. It will find a pretext - presumably an increase in guerrilla fighting, political
instability, etc - to suspend the polls. Since early last year, the CPP has been
conducting surveys to establish its voter support - the results of which are a tightly-kept
secret but are widely rumored to be less than positive - and such surveying will
continue right up to the ballot.
For opposition politicians, analysts say their electoral chances largely depend on
"free and fair" issues: freedom to campaign in safety; access to television,
radio and newspapers to spread their messages; and, ultimately, their ability to
convince voters that they can afford to vote according to their hearts, and that
their ballots will actually count.
It has the hallmarks of a no-win situation for the opposition: the more they try
to stretch the ropes which tie them, the easier it is for them to be hanged; the
more campaign freedoms they win, the better their chances on ballot day, the more
the CPP will feel threatened, and the greater the prospect of intimidation and violence.
That is a point not lost on the countries funding the elections, which have been
loath to impose concrete conditions on what they consider to be "free and fair",
"credible" and "acceptable".
While on one hand donors may be seeking to minimize violence, on the other they view
the elections as an escape route from the Cambodian minefield: a chance to resolve
Hun Sen's legitimacy crisis, try to ensure some political stability and continue
the "de-internationalization" of Cambodia's problems. And what of democracy?
"The mere act of elections is democracy - forget the result" is one diplomat's
summary of the general view.
Adds another foreign official involved with the elections: "Most people are
seeing this as a realpolitik situation. The world is getting very tired of Cambodia.
They're looking for a way out."
So the scene is set for the chess game that is elections '98: the foreign-financed
board is looking increasingly tilted; the referee - the world, not Cambodians - has
fingers crossed that not too many pawns will be sacrificed; the players can make
up the rules as they go along, but the result, bar any grand surprise moves or the
game being called off, seems a foregone conclusion.
When it's over, and checkmate is declared after the July 26 ballot day, "no
one is going to be enormously proud of having been associated with this," admits
one of the foreign officials, "but the question is, what is the alternative?"
For now, the CPP is confident that realpolitik - domestic as well as international
- will win it the game. As well as its more than 2 million claimed members, the party
is counting on many more voters casting their ballots according to the realities
of rural Cambodian life.
"There is a Khmer saying that 'The boat comes and goes, but the port remains
the same'," says a CPP civil servant. "[If I am a villager] I know very
well that when Sam Rainsy goes away, when the others go away, I will be left with
the chief of my village, of my commune, the local military police who can come to
surround me - this is the reality.
"When you are in the village, you react in a survivalist way. There's no UNTAC
now; NGOs come and go. This is the reality of my life. I have my land, my ricefields,
and I want to keep them."
Most observers agree that Cambodia's well-entrenched provincial structures, with
commune and village chiefs and local militia almost exclusively CPP members, provide
ample opportunities for coercion of voters.
One of several particularly worrying issues, say opposition politicians and democracy
advocates, is that all the votes are likely to be counted at each of the 17,000 polling
stations - one for about every 500 voters - in the villages and communes where they
"It should take village chiefs all of five minutes to work out who voted against
the CPP," notes one observer, as to why villagers may feel less than confident
about the secrecy of their ballots.
For the time being, there isn't much of a choice anyway. There is, as one foreign
NGO chief puts it, "the de facto non-possibility of an opposition in the countryside".
Prince Norodom Ranariddh's Funcinpec party remains in disorder, its military and
political structure shattered, its leader still abroad and facing criminal charges
Sam Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party (KNP) and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP)
of Son Sann loyalists are still fighting just to use their party names, in competition
with CPP-backed rivals, let alone to be able to get out into the provinces to safely
open offices and campaign.
"In '98, do the people have a choice?" asks a foreign analyst. "If
they can't see the party signs, if they can't hear the political parties' messages
on the radio, if they can't read them in the press, if they can't speak to political
activists because those activists are too frightened, if there are parties who cannot
campaign on the names which are recognized by the people as belonging to them, the
question is, do the people have a part to play in these elections?"
The biggest issue is a return by Ranariddh, who has won himself few friends in the
international community who will insist on his participation in the polls.
Without international pressure - or a daring move by Ranariddh such as a sudden return
to Cambodia to force the issue - his expected trial on weapons and national security
charges could be delayed for months, leaving him in limbo.
If he returns, he can expect, as one diplomat says, to be convicted "of very
serious charges, of conspiring to overthrow the government in conjunction with the
genocidal regime [the Khmer Rouge], and possibly to have to publicly beg his father
for an amnesty - that's not a strong position". The CPP, in its campaigning,
will make the most of Ranariddh's alleged treason.
Despite that, the CPP knows very well from '93 that regardless of Ranariddh's leadership
abilities - and there are many in the foreign community and among Cambodia's elite
who think very little of them - his royal blood gives him an electoral head start.
"In the countryside, people still like Ranariddh. He represents the monarchy
and Sihanouk." says a Khmer NGO representative. "That loyalty is hard to
shake. Hun Sen knows exactly that. The [July] coup was prompted, I believe, largely
by the CPP understanding that Ranariddh is still popular in the countryside and,
if he were here, he might get more votes than the CPP."
A foreign NGO official agrees: "Hun Sen will do his utmost not to let him run,
because in the countryside, he is popular. He is the King's son and now, he is also
seen as the victim."
One of the biggest questions of '98 is where the royalist vote will go, which is
why virtually everyone - from Sam Rainsy to Ranariddh deserters Ung Huot, Loy Sim
Chheang and Toan Chay - claims to support the King. (Ung Huot's and Loy Sim Chheang's
respective new parties, Sangkum Thmei and Reastr Niyum, aim to benefit from the symbolism
of Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of the 1950-60s.)
To the CPP, the King's popularity is the biggest danger. It is one reason why, to
them, free and fair elections, Western-style, are inherently unfree and unfair, Cambodian-style.
"What does Ranariddh really stand for?" asks the CPP official, who spoke
to the Post on condition of anonymity. "What does Toan Chay really stand for?
Ung Huot? Nady Tan? The King, that's what they say. Everyone can use the name of
the King, except the CPP.
"That's why CPP considers the elections are not fair - you control the power,
you control the country, and the ballot papers can take that away from you? No."
The CPP knows that the only one who can really rival the party is that old grandmaster
of Cambodian politics, King Sihanouk. Even if they can keep Ranariddh out of the
game, what they fear the most are any bold moves by his father.
The CPP believes, and has for years, that the King seeks to resume executive power,
or at least force Cambodia's politicians to the Royal negotiating table at which
he can engineer a government more to his liking. The elections may offer him his
The CPP official says that many in the party believe that the King, knowing that
Hun Sen is set to cement his power and legitimacy for another five-year term, wants
to stop the elections.
"The King will try to provoke some crisis as he is always trying to do,"
the official alleges. "In the event that he cannot prevent the electoral process...he
will have to endorse someone. Even to endorse someone indirectly, if the King will
do that... I think it would bring people to the voting stations [to vote against
CPP]. That is very dangerous."
A foreign observer comments: "The King could finally make a judgment and say,
'My dear children, you know what you have been through. You know the CPP and Hun
Sen has not let me play any role. Now you must support me to help change Cambodia.'
That would be extremely damaging to the CPP, particularly if Voice of America were
to broadcast it, so it was heard up and down the country."
However, although most observers agree that the King sincerely believes he is the
only one to lead his nation out of peril, many doubt that he is prepared to directly
challenge Hun Sen. His main aim is to ensure the monarchy's future; the question
is whether appeasement or confrontation is the better move.
So far, many believe he has chosen the former. Although he has constantly sniped
at the government, expressed dismay at CPP-supported republicanism, and even publicly
contemplated suicide, King Sihanouk has always exercised restraint: he declined to
judge whether last July was a coup d'état, did not oppose the new government,
and has avoided granting amnesties to political figures - including Ranariddh - without
Hun Sen's prior approval.
"He says he doesn't want to be remembered as the last King who destroyed the
monarchy," notes a Khmer observer who has been granted Royal audiences. "I
feel he is too Kingly, trying to please the powerful men, to send a message of 'I
am kind to you, you should be kind to me'."
A key factor, many observers speculate, is the role of Queen Monique. She is reported
to be counseling the King not to antagonize Hun Sen, and attempting to screen the
information and visitors he receives.
Her concern - and indeed the King's - is the post-Sihanouk future. It is widely believed,
though denied by the King, that she seeks to be appointed Regent Queen, or have her
son Prince Sihamoni enthroned, after Sihanouk dies or abdicates. "I'm afraid
that the Queen has some secret deal with Hun Sen," remarks a Khmer royal watcher.
Even if the King were prepared to act boldly, whom could he use and rely upon? "He
has little room to maneuver," says another Khmer observer. "He has brains,
but he doesn't have limbs. It's not like the old days, when he had people to turn
his views into actions."
As for endorsing someone, the King's disdain for his son Ranariddh is well known.
The CPP official alleges the King doesn't even want to amnesty Ranariddh, but is
content to let Hun Sen be "the bad guy" by appearing the only obstacle
to an amnesty.
Then there is Sam Rainsy, who frequently invokes the name of the King. Most recently,
Rainsy appealed for a public demonstration to support the King's return to Cambodia
from Beijing - attracting a sharp rebuke from Sihanouk that his name should be kept
out of politics, and threatening to cut-off his "close relationship" with
The KNP leader, meanwhile, was not perturbed. "I am just a scapegoat for the
King's anger at others. When you are in a family, you can afford to express your
feelings..." he says of the King's chastisement.
Does Rainsy expect the King to endorse him, or anyone else? "Even if I suspected
the King of anything like this, I cannot say. It would destroy my relationship with
the King," replies Rainsy.
Analysts agree that Rainsy is hoping for, but not necessarily counting on, some royal
help. Not all think that it will be forthcoming. "The King has serious doubts
about Rainsy; he thinks he is a republican and not a real democrat," says a
foreigner and occasional Royal visitor.
The CPP, meanwhile, keeps up the pressure: fueling republican sentiment through its
media outlets and political allies, and implicitly threatening to abolish the monarchy.
The threat may be hollow - to do so would risk a considerable public backlash - but
the message is still there: we will take revenge on the monarchy, sooner or later,
if you go too far.
While the King and Hun Sen can be expected to continue their sparring, particularly
when it comes to royal recognition of the election result and new government, it
is far from certain that either wants all-out war. Not least of all, some observers
suggest, because neither one - perhaps with a degree of admiration for each other
as a worthy opponent - may be sure of decisive victory.
Between the King, Ranariddh and the CPP, the most dangerous path is being charted
by Sam Rainsy. Cambodia's most outspoken dissident has reason to hate both Ranariddh
and Hun Sen - having been thrown out of Funcinpec by the former and had (by his own
allegation) grenades thrown at him by the latter - but he also knows that, by himself,
all the votes in the world won't win him power.
So far, his strategy is to flirt with both his enemies: he remains a member of the
Ranariddh-backed Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD), while entertaining the prospect
of a coalition with the CPP.
As for Ranariddh's return, Rainsy is of two minds. "I would benefit from an
absent Ranariddh, definitely," he says, confident of attracting many votes which
would otherwise go to the King's son.
On the other hand, he is aware of his party faithful's isolated position, easy targets
for intimidation and violence in the provinces, if he is virtually the sole opposition.
"The CPP fears... that if Ranariddh returns, he will be able to rebuild Funcinpec.
The vast majority of the grassroots supporters of Funcinpec are still loyal to Ranariddh.
They hate Hun Sen," Rainsy says.
"A rebuilding of Funcinpec by Ranariddh would contribute to a balancing of the
power, to prevent Hun Sen from doing anything he wants to do," he maintains,
despite CPP's overwhelming victory the last time its power was put to the test against
For now, Rainsy says he is firmly with the UCD, which supports Ranariddh "not
as an individual but as a matter or principle" and threatens to boycott the
ballot if the Prince cannot run.
At the same time, Rainsy - after an unprecedented meeting with his former arch-enemy
Hun Sen on Dec 8 - says he is willing to "forge an alliance with the devil".
The way Rainsy tells it, Hun Sen and his advisers "asked me to have working
sessions... to define a common political platform, or at least common political goals,
which we would work together on in the context of a coalition government."
He says that if his conditions - a ceasefire and "free and fair" elections
- "start to be met", he will talk with the CPP and invite other parties
to join them.
Rainsy says he is under no illusions: the CPP is courting him as the lesser of two
evils (with the intention to keep Ranariddh out), they have no intention of giving
up much power, and what they say and do are different matters.
"[The CPP] cannot afford to fight two enemies at the same time. That's why they
try to appease me. I fully understand that. But I want to take this opportunity to
bring about some benefits to Cambodia."
Noting that the CPP sees 1998 as "the historical and unique chance to legitimize
their power", he says: "I think I am the only one who can offer the CPP
the chance to remain in power, in a Cambodia at peace, in a more democratic Cambodia.
They have to consider the possibility of being eliminated. They are against the trend
of the world... toward democracy, human rights, the will of the people."
And Hun Sen, the man he has repeatedly accused of being a dictator and murderer?
"I think I am the only one who can offer Hun Sen a way out, to rehabilitate
himself morally and politically. The Khmer Rouge will kill him if they return to
power, Ranariddh will eliminate him if he returns to power... I told Hun Sen that
I am not inspired by revenge.
"...My other option is to align myself with Ranariddh and fight strongly, as
we did before July. I imagine we would have to fight [Hun Sen] to the finish... This
would make a protracted war in Cambodia."
Feints and bluffs
To some, Rainsy is playing a smart game of realpolitik, knowing that a precarious
foot in the door of a government is better than a strategy of confrontation which
may get him nothing but death. To others, he is naive at best and a sell-out at worst.
"Hun Sen neutralizes him," says one foreign analyst of Rainsy. "Who
looked the better peacemaker when they stood together on the steps [of Hun Sen's
Takhmao house]... Hun Sen can say 'Here is my most virulent, outspoken critic coming
to meet me and I am openly welcoming him'."
In reference to the suspected political killing of a KNP worker, the analyst asks
"how many more Prey Veng activists have to be killed" before Rainsy realizes
Hun Sen will not play fairly and, even if KNP could get into a coalition government,
"for how long?".
Rainsy, for his part, acknowledges: "Yes, I think it is the will of the CPP
not to give up power. But the CPP, like any communist party, has a long term view...they
are prepared to share power while not giving up real power."
In the same breath, Rainsy insists he is not prepared to legitimize "a mockery
of elections". He knows that Hun Sen isn't keeping his word. "Hun Sen has
told me many nice things and made many nice promises, but behind my back, he has
been doing the contrary."
Former KNP security chief Srun Vong Vannak has yet to be freed from jail, despite
Hun Sen's promise to seek his release more than a month ago. Rainsy alleges Hun Sen
is also encouraging Kong Mony, who leads a shadow KNP, to open provincial offices.
As for himself, Rainsy acknowledges he is effectively unable to open rural offices
or to have television and radio coverage, and that, in Prey Veng at least, his activists
are being killed.
Are either CPP or KNP really prepared to have a coalition, or are they merely toying
with each other, hands clasped behind their backs with hidden knives?
Most observers agree that the pair are testing the waters, each attempting to lure
some benefit - Rainsy hoping to get at least a little leeway to boost his provincial
structure, perhaps, and Hun Sen benefiting from the appearance of an opposition -
but no one doubts that their strategies could change at any time.
A senior Khmer NGO representatives suggests the short-term CPP trade-off is that,
to keep Ranariddh out, Rainsy needs to be accepted in order to satisfy the international
community: "An election without any opposition is clearly not free and fair.
Hun Sen sees that Rainsy has no party structure. He wants him to win some votes,
but not a lot...10-15 seats is allowable."
The CPP official acknowledges that his party's preference is to form a coalition
with other parties, such as "non-Ranariddh" Funcinpec ones like Ung Huot's,
but that - depending on the election results and the international response - the
inclusion of Rainsy is possible.
"[If Rainsy wins] under 10 seats, no way. More than 10 seats, and there's a
way for him to negotiate," says the official.
But, he implies, Rainsy had better not win too many seats. "Both [Hun Sen and
Rainsy] know that at some crossroads, you will have to take out the sword... If Rainsy
wins with other arguments, the last argument will be with the sword."
The leader of a small, CPP-aligned party, when asked about Rainsy's election prospects,
puts it succinctly: "Sam Rainsy can die any day, any place."
No one doubts that another coalition government is inevitable, because of the Constitution
(which requires two-thirds parliamentary approval of a new government) and the need
for the appearance of multi-party democracy (a 99.9% CPP election result being somewhat
hard to explain as "free and fair").
Officially, the CPP target is to win 73 of 122 seats, a little under the two-thirds
margin. As for Rainsy, he sees the best hope as CPP, KNP and a Ranariddh-led Funcinpec
each getting 30% of the vote, the remaining 10% split among smaller parties.
In that scenario, what would he do? Rainsy lists the options: for Funcinpec-KNP to
attempt to form a government without the CPP (confrontational, dangerous and hard
to achieve, he acknowledges); a KNP-CPP coalition, excluding Funcinpec; or a three-way
Rainsy prefers the last option, with KNP in the middle as the "glue" between
Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Would Hun Sen accept Ranariddh back? "I told Hun Sen
that if there's one person who has any reason to hate Hun Sen and refuse to accept
Hun Sen in a coalition government, it would be me - if I can accept Hun Sen, why
can't he accept Ranariddh?" asks Rainsy.
While he says he stands by Ranariddh, Rainsy is still considering the prospect of
ditching him from any coalition. "I'm not entirely ruling that out because I
have doubts about the capability of Funcinpec to be a ruling party."
But he adds that, despite Ranariddh's past campaign "to get rid of the best
people in Funcinpec", there are still good people in the party. His preference,
he says, is to work with the "good elements" of both Funcinpec and CPP
in a coalition.
As for his chances of the CPP accepting him into a coalition, Rainsy agrees that
he will not be Hun Sen's first choice. "If the international community is satisfied
with a cosmetic coalition government, they will make do with that. If the government
cannot gain the respect and recognition of the world, then they will move closer
And should he succeed? Rainsy claims - contrary to his nature, many observers believe
- that he wouldn't rock the boat in a CPP-KNP coalition.
"There would be no surprises, that I would have too much power and that they
would have too little power," says a man who made his reputation on an uncompromising
hard line against Hun Sen. "I want to go very fast on implementing reforms that
are needed urgently in Cambodia, but I know that the CPP is not keen on reforms,
because they have too many entrenched interests. So we have to strike a deal, and
move at an appropriate pace. I have said that to them; they have nothing to fear."
Ultimately, as Ranariddh reportedly remarked to Rainsy at a recent UCD meeting in
Bangkok: "Everyone is watching you now to see whether you will be more clever
than Mr Hun Sen, or whether Mr Hun Sen is more clever than you."
Behind the kings, queens, knights and rooks, the pawns are lining up, from Ung Huot
and Loy Sim Chheang's new parties, to Ieng Mouly's BLDP, to dozens of tiny parties
being formed. Get a party, align yourself with CPP, and hope to secure a few parliamentary
seats, the odd ministerial post or - if you just happen to fit into the grander moves
as they unfold - a bigger slice of a coalition government.
One player to watch, some observers suggest, is the Khmer Citizen Party of former
Funcinpec deputy secretary-general, and short-time KNP convert, Nguon Soeur. He appears
increasingly close to the CPP - most recently he wrote an open letter to the King
warning "I don't want to see you lose the throne again" - and is winning
coverage in pro-government newspapers.
Whether it is Soeur or a non-Ranariddh "royalist" such as Ung Huot who
can capture enough votes to win the role of No.2 in the next government, they and
other budding contestants are playing a vital role for Hun Sen.
With more than 40 parties in existence now, many but not all of them aligned to CPP,
the strongman of Cambodian politics can point out the flourishing state of multi-party
democracy. He can also look forward to the non-CPP vote being divided among them.
"For Hun Sen, the more parties, the better - it splits the vote" - providing
that none of them are strong enough alone to win a large proportion, notes a foreign
And after the election, what better way to show that Cambodia still has democracy
than to have a large coalition, with plenty of smaller parties complementing the
mighty CPP (except, as Sam Rainsy is quick to point out, by having the country's
most outspoken dissident in the government)?
Similarly, the CPP is courting many local NGOs. As one NGO chief points out, if the
election results are contested by Ranariddh, Rainsy or others, Hun Sen will parade
dozens of small parties and NGOs to declare their satisfaction with the freedom and
fairness of the elections. Alternatively, they will declare the opposite if, by some
chance, it should be Hun Sen contesting the result.
Another scenario is that, if there is no one able to capture the hearts of the royalist
voters and there is little cohesive campaigning by the opposition, the non-CPP vote
will simply stay at home.
"A low election turnout is a danger," says a Khmer NGO representative.
"The party faithful would get all their followers and beneficiaries to vote,
but few other people would vote. A low turnout would mean their disapproval of the
system altogether, to say the least, not to mention their fears."
Another Khmer NGO official points out that if the international community is prepared
to accept Ranariddh's absence, as well as a potentially low voter turn-out, the opposition's
last option - a boycott of the elections - will achieve nothing.
All Hun Sen - and, more precisely, the CPP's provincial security forces - has to
do, says a foreign official, is remember that the checkmate is virtually declared
"I just hope Hun Sen sees it that way... If he plays it right, he can have a
sufficiently free and fair election with, if not an absence of bully boy tactics,
then at a low-enough level to be acceptable."
And what of the F words, "free and fair"?
What do they mean anyway? One observer's definition: "The starting point that
I think you will have to ask after the elections is 'Did the electorate, having gone
through an election, feel that in any way the resulting government reflected the
will of the people?'"
Then again, that was never really the aim of the game.