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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Comment Elections "make or break" for future of Cambodia

Comment Elections "make or break" for future of Cambodia

Dr. Lao Mong Hay, the executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy,

sees the forthcoming elections as "a crucial challenge in nation-building."

THE present National Assembly is now in its mid-term. There have been talks about

the communal elections scheduled for 1997 and the 1998 general elections. Preparations

for these elections have begun. These developments are yet another testimony to the

continuing democratization process in Cambodia amidst some serious setbacks this

process encountered in 1995.

These forthcoming elections constitute yet another crucial challenge in nation-building.

They are, though, good opportunities that the Cambodian people cannot afford to miss

in their endeavors to shape their destiny. They are a test of nationhood, of soveriegn

independence, and indeed of the sincerity of the commitment toward democracy.

Are the Cambodian people prepared to overcome this challenge? Do they have the will

or not? Will they, and can they, prove themselves to be an independent and sovereign

nation, master of its own destiny? Will they, and can they, prove themselves worthy

of every penny spent by the international community to help them restore peace, find

freedom and improve their lot? Will they, and can they, prove themselves worthy of

further assistance? Will they, and can they, organize those forthcoming elections?

The international community, and especially those nations that have shown continued

concern for the plight of the Cambodian people, have been focusing their attention

on these people's attitude towards the forthcoming elections, their initiatives on

the issue, and their ability to prepare the electoral process and actually organize

the elections. Those nations are even prepared to provide assistance if so required.

The forthcoming elections, especially the 1998 general election, like it or not,

will be a turning point for better or for worse. They will be the Cambodian people's

make-or-break national endeavor. Should they fail by default or otherwise, they would

be ruled by "oriental despotism" whose effects they know only too well.

They would not have peace, and if foreign powers managed to control their despotic

rulers as in the past, they would be finished.

In contrast, should the same people succeed in holding those elections - and there

is no reason why they should not - their pluralist, liberal democracy would be solidly

established and they would be on the ascendance and usher in an age of peace and

prosperity. All their past ignominy would be but history.


The organization of elections should be based on well-defined principles and objectives.

These principles and objectives should be the basis of the choice of any electoral

system and of any electoral law that has to be adopted to determine the electoral

process and all the tasks involved. A set of these principles and objectives are

proposed here:

  1. The first principle is the fullest democratic representation of the people, which

    means that any citizen who has the right to vote should be able to exercise this

    right, and any citizen who has the right to stand for elections should be able to.

    The exercise of both rights should be free of all obstacles, be these in the form

    of intimidation, violence or otherwise. The choice is the choice of those citizens


  2. It is gratifying to know that the first Prime Minister and the two Co-Ministers

    of Interior have called on all armed elements of the State to concentrate on ensuring

    security and to be impartial during the elections.

  3. The second principle is the ultimate objective of elections; that the elections

    should produce results acceptable to all competing parties. This is vital in order

    to ensure peace and security for individuals and for the country as a whole.

  4. The third principle is free and fair elections which is required to ensure that

    the results are accepted by all. It is related to the first principle, that is, voters

    as well as candidates and their agents should be free of all forms of intimidation,

    violence, or obstruction of their rights during the electoral process and beyond

    (that is from the drafting of electoral law to the date when the newly elected representatives

    are sworn in, and there is no discrimination or favor of anybody after the elections).

  5. The fourth principle is that, in order to have free and fair elections, they

    should be organized by a competent, independent and impartial body. This body should

    include people with required expertise and skills, given full authority to run the

    elections with all necessary resources. It should have the authority over all forces

    that are needed to ensure peace, security and safety during a determined period of

    time required in the electoral process, without, however, prejudice to the defense

    of the country. It should be independent of all influences, preconceptions, bias

    and discrimination against or in favor of any party or candidate.

  6. Some Cambodian leaders have already called for such an independent electoral


  7. The fifth principle is that, in order to ensure its competence, independence

    and impartiality, that body should be composed of members with the same qualifications

    required, or of members with different qualifications the combination of which would

    meet the requirements of competence, independence and impartiality. Qualifications

    of individual members may differ from those required, but, through institutional

    behavior, the unwanted aspects of their different qualifications can cancel one another

    out, when all adhere to the same code of conduct or rules and regulations.


Once the principles and objectives of elections have been determined and agreed

upon, a choice of an appropriate electoral system can be made. This system can help

ensure the fullest democratic representation of the people which is essential to

democracy, and also acceptance of election results by all parties and voters. Peace

and stability would ensue if those results were so accepted.

The majoritarian or first-past-the-post system has been proposed for the 1998 general

elections. Reasons have been put forward to support this, such as the difficulty

in identifying one's representative when there are many representatives in one province.

Representatives have too many constituents to look after.

This is not entirely valid. There is a tendency to confuse the role of a member of

the National Assembly (MP) on many counts. MPs are wrongly expected to solve problems

which the executive branch should be addressing. MPs can only address those problems

using relevant authorities. MPs are expected to represent the interests of their

constituents in one constituency while, once elected MPs, they have a national mandate

to take care of the interests of the whole nation - not of one constituency (province)

alone. Anyway, if constituents want their MPs to address their problems they could

address to them through their party's offices in the constituencies. Cambodia has

many party offices down to the village level.

The second reason is the dictatorial domination of party leaders over their party

members in the National Assembly under the proportional representation (PR) system,

when these members can be and have already been coerced to vote as they are told.

This coercion is unavoidable regardless of the electoral system, unless MPs are independent.

MPs can preserve their independence though, if parties accept that MPs cannot be

expelled from the National Assembly, can change parties, or can become independent

until the next elections.

The two reasons above are valid only up to a point. Beyond that it is very questionable.

Apparently, the main reason behind the preference for the majoritarian system is

the least costs of vote-buying can manifest itself in many forms. Efforts to meet

the aspirations of one's constituents through demagogic means is one form of vote-buying.

This means can be sponsorship or patronage of community projects and offer of privileges,

for instance. Cash for votes is another form of vote-buying.

Vote-buying will inevitably lead to corruption as MPs need to use public office or

powers to recoup the expenses on vote-buying, to enrich themselves, and to cover

the costs of protecting their ill-gained wealth.

Vote-buying could lead to permanent patronage and the dependency of constituents

to their MPs. In the long run, these relationships between constituents and their

representatives will become the relationships of serfs and masters. Constituencies

will become the fiefdoms of MPs and their descendants. The country will become a

kingdom of fiefdoms. It could break up, or foreign powers could nibble away one fiefdom

after another.

The majoritarian system cannot ensure the fullest democratic representation of the

people. An extreme case could be envisaged to illustrate the weakness of the system

in this regard. A candidate can win in a constituency with 21 per cent of the votes

cast if there are five candidates three of whom get 20 per cent of the votes each

and the fourth 19 per cent. That MP represent only 21 per cent of the constituents,

a very tiny minority indeed: 21 per cent of the population are represented while

the rest, 79 per cent, are not. If this extreme case is repeated in all constituencies,

only 21 per cent of the country's population is represented while 79 per cent are


The government's legitimacy to rule is undermined by this small representation. Laws

adopted by such minority cannot carry enough moral authority. Government policies

cannot be implemented very easily. Force may have to be used to enforce laws and

implement policies.

In some countries which adopt the majoritarian system, leaders elected on minority

votes have experienced difficulty running the country. At times ruling parties prefer

to call for new elections in order to get a bigger majority to govern properly.

In the same illustrative case above the majority feel left out, unrepre-sented. They

can sneer and jeer at the minority in power and resort to "street democracy"

to oppose laws. They can go underground, resorting to terrorism, or they go to the

jungle to take up arms against the minority government.

For countries with no non-violent ways of venting anger and frustration, as apparently

the case of Cambodia in the past, those who feel left out could well go underground

or to the jungle.

In contrast, the PR system can ensure the fullest democratic representation when

different groups are represented in the National Assembly. In the illustrative case

above, all the five groups voting for their respective candidates or parties would

be represented. This is democracy. No party has the majority to rule on its own.

Parties have to form a coalition to rule the country. Parties which are left out

or which refused to join will be "opposition" and contribute to the government

of the country through this capacity.

With the PR system all are represented in the National Assembly, subject to a certain

threshold number of votes. A party may have the majority of seats and form a government

on its own. Should each party fail to get that majority, two or more parties will

have to form a coalition government.

All groups may not be able to participate in the government, but all can play a role.

All are working "above-ground" in the National Assembly and have no reason

to take up arms to fight the government.

The PR system ensures that small groups of citizens with new initiatives and ideas

are not denied a national forum to propose those initiatives and ideas for consideration.

These groups can form political parties and stand for elections. If new initiatives

and ideas are to be encouraged the PR system should not exclude independent candidates,

and/or the threshold of party memberships allowed to enter elections should be as

low as possible.

Compared with the majoritarian system, the PR system has more advantages for Cambodia

if measures are taken to correct its defects. It ensures the fullest democratic representation

and participation of the people in public affairs. It eliminates the reasons for

"street democracy" or for all forms of violent struggle against the government

formed from that system.

The PR system may not ensure a fast decision-making process when no party wins a

majority to rule the country, as different parties need to negotiate to reach a consensus.

This is not a big drawback. "Jaw jaw is better than war war", they say.

Furthermore, the market economy and the civil society in a pluralist liberal democracy

could well compensate for this drawback so long as the government can ensure security

for the society. This society can function with little government intervention.

Should Cambodia adopt the PR system, it has a wealth of experience and resources

to draw upon to organize the forthcoming elections. There are already some 50,000

citizens who have already been involved in one way or another in the organization

of the May 1993 elections. There are also election materials for education. Cambodia

will not start from scratch and will not have to reinvent the wheel.


A Competent, Independent and Impartial Commission. All the principles and objectives

of elections and the electoral system proposed above should be incorporated and reflected

in the electoral law. This law determines all rules, procedures, mechanisms and major

tasks related to the electoral process. It should provide for the setting up of a

competent, independent and impartial electoral commission with all the necessary

powers and resources to conduct the elections at all stages: deciding constituency

boundaries; establishing electoral rolls; civic education; training electoral staff;

locating, staffing and monitoring polling booths; registering political parties;

supervising campaigns and polls; resolving conflicts and complaints; counting votes;

announcing results; investigating irregularities; mobilizing resources to meet election

costs; and ensuring security for all during the campaigns and polling days, and beyond.

Elections are national endeavors. The whole nation should participate and help ensure

that they take place and they are free and fair. NGOs which are the structure of

the civil society should be brought in the electoral process and invited to actively

contribute in its entire length. These NGOs should participate in the electoral commission;

the drafting of the electoral law; public awareness; civic education; training of

electoral staff and poll watchers; monitoring; vote counting; and coordination of

international monitoring.

Some NGOs have people who helped organize the UNTAC elections. Others helped make

radio and TV broadcasts to provide information. All are in a position to participate

in the electoral process with little additional training.

The participation of all NGOs and, of course, all other social institutions in the

electoral process will only enhance the credibility of the elections, and ensure

the elections are free and fair. The results should be accepted by all competing

political parties.

The forthcoming elections are an enormous task, but they must be carried out successfully

in order for Cambodia to rise again as an independent and sovereign nation.



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