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Democracy: an historical perspective

In the first of a series of analyses, Steven Heder traces the history of Cambodian

elections from 1946. Many of the themes Heder explores remain unchanged over the

last half-century: patronage, intimidation and violence, and political monopolies

that all but own the state apparatus. "Popular, free and fair" is an ideal

hardly supported by history. Heder begins with this overview of the "traditional"

Cambodian election before looking, in an essay overleaf, at the elections of 1946,

1947 and 1951 - the Democrat Years.

Before the United Nations mission in Cambodia, Cambodian elections performed two

functions. Most were used by those already in control of the summit of the state

to extend their power. They used balloting processes to legitimize their domination

with electoral trappings and as an opportunity to repress their political enemies.

They rigged and fabricated results in order to achieve the appearance of massive

voter turnout and votes in their favor while unleashing their security forces on

the opposition. Those at the top of the state scripted elections into calculated

processes aimed at the symbolic and institutional exclusion of their enemies from

the political scene and - to greater or lesser extents - at the physical destruction

of their enemies.

In other cases, elections were used by incumbents at other levels within the state

as an opportunity to demonstrate their political strength vis-a-vis less popular

political adversaries higher up. They used their control of significant parts of

the state, particularly at the middle and local levels not only to make it possible

for the population to manifest its support for them through voting, but also to manipulate

the process in the party's favor.

Thus, elections 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 to enhance their

power along lines reflecting popular preferences.

Elections never provided an opportunity for those who did not already enjoy access

to the state to gain such access via the ballot box.Those who attempted to do so

had always ended up with none of their candidates elected and instead with at least

some of their candidates and campaigners in prison or dead.

Such historical experiences suggested that even a popular political movement might

be ill-advised to participate in an election unless it already had significant access

to the state, if not at the summit, then lower down. It suggested that in the absence

of such access, participation was more likely to lead to destruction than to political

gains.

Between 1946 and 1981, 10 elections for constituent or legislative assemblies were

held in Cambodia. These included three elections before the Kingdom of Cambodia became

fully independent juridically from France in 1953, four elections from then until

the overthrow of the monarchical regime in 1970; one election under the Khmer Republic

in 1973; one election during the Democratic Kampuchea period in 1976; and one election

during the People's Republic of Kampuchea period in 1981.

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