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
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.