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Democratic Kampuchea: the polls of 1976

1976 was Pol Pot's turn to hold elections: the polls that symbolized revolutionary victory - and precious little else. Historian Steve Heder continues his series on Cambodian democracy.

The 1976 elections in Democratic Kampuchea were used by the covert Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) to symbolize the supposed total victory of Cambodia's workers and peasants over their class enemies.

They marked the consolidation of the power of Pol Pot and other top Communist Party leaders by formally stripping authority from the United Front allies who had assisted them in their drive to seize power, but who were now considered dispensable. The elections proved to be a prelude to the physical elimination of many of these former allies.

The candidates were selected by the Communist Party exclusively from among its own secret ranks. The right to cast ballots was in practice limited to those considered politically reliable, and local communist cadre closely supervised the balloting exercise.

Immediately after defeating Lon Nol's Khmer Republic, CPK Secretary Pol Pot and his deputy Nuon Chea implemented policies which they believed would complete the "national democratic" revolution they saw themselves as having been leading for many years. These policies aimed to liquidate Cambodia's "feudal" and "capitalist" classes as classes and to transform its society into one in which only two classes existed as such: peasants and workers.

By late 1975, they thought this had been achieved by the mass relocation of the individual members of the feudal and capitalist classes from Phnom Penh and other towns to rural areas where they were put under the control of "poor and lower-middle peasants" administering agricultural production co-operatives and by the systematic execution of Khmer Republic military and civil service personnel. In their view, this made Cambodia into a "Democratic Kampuchea", because they defined democracy as "attacking and overthrowing the feudalists/landlords and reactionary capitalists" by destroying "old relations of production and constructing new relations of production" through the establishment of cooperatives as the "mainstay" of the political and economic power of the poor and lower-middle peasants.

As a result of having thus "overthrown the feudal and capitalist classes, exploiting classes that for more than 2,000 years had enjoyed strong economic foundations and solid and mighty political regimes in Cambodian society", the Cambodian people "for the first time ever in Cambodian history" were able to "enjoy genuine democracy".

However, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea also believed that while the social basis of democracy was properly established, the political superstructure in the period after April 1975 still contained unacceptably large "feudal" residues because of the continued formal existence of united front bodies such as the National United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK) and the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea (GRUNK), both established in 1970.

Sihanouk was GRUNK chief of state and FUNK president, and both bodies originally incorporated many non-communist political figures, such as the veteran ex-Democrat Penn Nouth, who was GRUNK premier.

However Sihanouk, Penn Nouth and almost all the non-communist members of FUNK and GRUNK had been kept in exile by Pol Pot since their establishment, and they were still abroad when Phnom Penh was "liberated".

Nevertheless, technically speaking GRUNK was still the government of the country. In Pol Pot's and Nuon Chea's view, both it and FUNK "were feudal in organizational form". Ever since their establishment, the Party had "conducted class struggle within" them "to strengthen and expand the worker-peasant alliance and uproot the oppressing classes". Before April 1975, this struggle had entailed battles to thwart "the desire to return to power bad elements within the upper strata who were within the ranks of the front".

After April 1975, both FUNK and GRUNK had to be dismantled along with a third united front body, the National Congress, which had functioned as a sort of legislature for both by formally making policy pronouncements. This was because the objective of the Party's "revolutionary struggle" had always been to "seize state power and put it into the hands of workers and peasants by attacking and toppling the entire political administration of oppression" of both the feudal and capitalist classes.

In order to ensure that "April 17 was the day of total and eternal victory" it was "imperative" that the Party "put together [a] political administration such that in character it will be a revolutionary political administration belonging to [the Party] unadulteredly". The promulgation of a new constitution, the holding of elections for a new legislature and finally the formation of a new government were thus necessary in order to ensure that "the elemental reality of... state organs" was no longer "united front" in nature, but belonged "to the Party unadulteratedly".

Achieving this required "a kind of political storming attack". As Pol Pot put it, this would mean "arranging for the end of the old regime in legal terms" and thus "bringing down the curtain completely" on it.

He was concerned to do this in a way that would enhance the Party's political reputation. Thus, he wanted "to show that even though we have already won, we are not running wild: we do things right and proper". This meant putting an end to united front bodies "smoothly and at precisely the right moment" so as to avoid the appearance of being dogmatic while at the same time not allowing them to last any longer than necessary.

Of the three bodies to be dismantled, the National Congress was the most liable to reliable covert Communist Party control, and it was through it that the formal struggle to eliminate feudal remnants at the superstructure level was conducted.

As the first public step toward this end, a special National Congress was convened a week and a half after the seizure in Phnom Penh, when Sihanouk and all other non-communist GRUNK and FUNK members were still outside the country. It was chaired by Khieu Samphan, in his overt capacity as GRUNK Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense, to carry out the dismantling process which he was assigned to engineer in his capacity as a member of the CPK's covert Central Committee, which he had apparently joined in 1971.

According to the Congress communiqué, "311 delegates attended this special National Congress, including 125 representatives of people's organizations, 112 representing all units of the three categories of the Cambodian People's National Liberation Armed Forces, 20 representatives of the Buddhist monkhood, 41 representatives of FUNK organizations and 13 members of the GRUNK".

The representatives of "people's organizations" and the armed forces were almost certainly the same communist cadre who were summoned at this time for "a nation-wide work meeting of the Party" and subsequent meeting of the Party Central Committee, and the GRUNK representatives present were overwhelmingly Party members. It was inevitable, therefore, that the Congress gave public endorsement to the idea that Cambodian society was undergoing a transformation toward a two-class society.

It promised that "workers, poor and lower-middle peasants and other laborers" would henceforth be accorded a "special status" politically, along with the armed forces, which were composed of "the offspring of our poor people".

Through the Congress, the Party indicated that it wanted Sihanouk to remain Cambodia's chief of state and Penn Nouth as head of government for at least the time being, but everything indicated that their roles would be symbolic and they would be powerless.

A broadcast by FUNK radio on April 30 suggested the continued residual existence of other classes or class strata, including "patriotic personalities" like Sihanouk and Penn Nouth, as well as "the middle class" and "intellectuals", but they were all said to be "completely satisfied" with their inferior status vis-à-vis the workers and peasants.

The special National Congress established a Constitution Commission headed by Khieu Samphan, which was supposed to concretize its promises into a constitutional draft and to double as an election commission to prepare for and carry out elections under the new constitution once it was promulgated.

In late August, Khieu Samphan presented "various important points" of an early draft of the constitution to Sihanouk and Penn Nouth, then in China. The draft was later supposedly reworked several times on the basis of comments provided by "mass organizations throughout the country, such as the workers' organization, the peasants' organization and units of the Cambodian revolutionary armed forces", a claim which probably refers to comments from Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, and possibly others. Their concern was to ensure that the text ideologically codified the Party's line on building state power and fully crowned its victory over its enemies in the legal sense.

In the meantime, in early July, Khieu Samphan's commission in its electoral guise had produced a set of "regulations regarding the election of the members of the Cambodian People's Representative Assembly". These spelled out franchise and qualifications for candidates. They provided that all Cambodians 18 years or older were eligible to vote "regardless of their former class and political tendencies, regardless of their religious beliefs and sex, whether they were liberated before or after April 17... The only indispensable condition is that they should not have committed any crime since April 17, 1975."

These formulations assured urban evacuees and other "new people" who had only come under Party control after April 17 that they enjoyed the franchise along with veteran peasant and other residents of the pre-1975 "liberated zones", as long as they had not engaged in activities against the revolution or otherwise transgressed its unwritten rules. They were, however, prevented from standing for election by the second of six criteria governing such eligibility.

These were: (1) The candidate must be at least 25 years old; (2) the candidate must have a good record of revolutionary struggle for national and people's liberation; (3) the candidate must be loyal to the people and must absolutely respect and implement the Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea in past, present and future positive actions; (4) the candidate must have a good moral standard; (5) the candidate must enjoy the acceptance and support of the absolute majority; (6) the candidate must be approved unanimously by the Election Committee.

On Dec 14, 1975, the last National Congress was convened in Phnom Penh, in advance of Sihanouk's expected return to the country upon completion of his "mission abroad".

Like the meeting in late April, it coincided with a major gathering of Party cadre, this time for a nation-wide study session conducted by Nuon Chea to be followed by a full-fledged Party Congress. Formally, it was co-chaired by Khieu Samphan and Penn Nouth, who had been back in the country since early September. Although Penn Nouth was still formally Khieu Samphan's superior in the GRUNK hierarchy, he was in a powerless position, and Khieu Samphan dominated the proceedings.

Some 1,115 delegates participated. These included 500 representatives of peasants, 300 representatives of workers, and 300 representatives of the "revolutionary armed forces". These were probably the same people who were attending the strictly Party gatherings.

According the communiqué issued in the name of the Congress, "after listening to the report by His Excellency Khieu Samphan... on the new draft constitution of Cambodia, and following thorough consultations", it "unanimously and fully approved" it.

On Jan 5, 1976, five days after his return to the country, Sihanouk presided as chief-of-state over a meeting of the GRUNK cabinet, at which the text of the constitution was presented as a fait accompli for promulgation. On that date Cambodia thus formally became "Democratic Kampuchea", a "state of the worker and peasant people and all other Cambodian laboring people".

Article 5 of the constitution reiterated this class formulation in defining the political mandate of the "the Cambodian people's representative assembly". It declared that "the power to make laws is a power belonging to the assembly of representatives of the peasant and worker people and all other Cambodian laboring people". It specified the assembly was to be comprised of 250 representatives of "the peasant and worker people and other Cambodian laboring people and of the Cambodian Revolutionary Army".

Of the 250 members, 150 were to represent peasants, for 60% of the total. One-fifth (50 members) were to represent workers and other laborers and another fifth revolutionary troops, who were to be "offspring of the peasant and worker people and other Cambodian laboring people". According to Article 6, they were to be elected in a "nation-wide, direct and secret ballot".

Article 7 declared that the assembly was "tasked with deciding laws and stipulating Cambodia's various domestic and international policy lines". By terms of Article 8, it was empowered to "select the government", which was made "responsible" to it, but there was no specification that members of the government had to be members of the assembly.

The elections were the next step in the anti-feudal struggle, and final preparations for them seem to have begun in early March. Senior cadre from the zones into which the CPK divided the country were summoned to Phnom Penh to see Pol Pot "to be instructed about arrangements for balloting to select national assembly candidates".

On March 8, Pol Pot presided over a meeting at which "problems related to the balloting on March 20, 1976" were the first item on the agenda. Khieu Samphan reported that he had already explained "the principles of the... ballot" to local cadre and given them instructions about "the requirements of the balloting; the balloting method; the various qualifications for standing as a representative; [and] propaganda and education methods, etc".

Pol Pot then commented that the elections were not being organized "bourgeois-style", but by "making use of our proletarian dictatorship". He gave instructions about "the duties of the committee that has to organize the elections", suggesting that the "qualifications for standing for election" might need to be clarified, stressing the need to "educate and propagandize the people" about the election and explaining in detail how to set up polling stations."

He also warned: "Don't make it appear that we want to use suppression. At the same time, don't joke about the assembly in front of the people and make it appear to them that we are doing something phony, that our assembly is worthless."

In the 12 days remaining before polling day, efforts were made to act on his advice. To ensure that the assembly was an organ of the proletarian dictatorship, politically more stringent qualifications were set forth for candidates. They were now required "in particular" to have: a brilliant record of revolutionary struggle for national and people's liberation; absolute allegiance to the people and revolutionary organization; a resolute stand of struggle full of courage and gallantry displayed both during the past five years and more of revolutionary war and in the current efforts to defend and build the country.

The call for absolute loyalty to the "revolutionary organization" made Communist Party membership a prerequisite for candidacy, and the other formulations suggested that a very good record of service to the Party was also necessary.

Hu Nim, who since the early 1970s had handled information dissemination for the Party and was GRUNK Minister of Propaganda, was assigned to conduct radio propaganda with a view to prevent the election from being perceived as a farce. He was told to record and broadcast rallies for peasant, worker and army candidates "so that the enemy could not accuse us of not allowing freedom to campaign during the elections" or of "conniving to select only our own cronies" as candidates.

In fact, the first rally was one of troops of Central Committee Division 170, at which "thousands of revolutionary combatants" expressed their support for the candidacy of their commander, who had been "selected as their representative in the assembly". At the second, factory workers in Phnom Penh expressed their support for the candidacy of Hu Nim himself, for the Chairman of the Party's Industry Committee and for another senior communist cadre.

The location for the third rally and the names of three peasant candidates who were to be supported at it were personally selected by Pol Pot.

On March 17, Khieu Samphan's Election Commission produced a communiqué asserting that it had approved 515 candidates to run for the 250 available seats. The text of the communiqué, but not the names of the candidates, was made public the next day, 48 hours before polling was supposed to begin. It called on "fraternal workers, peasants and revolutionary army combatants to select the... best qualified candidates to become their representatives".

Finally, polling stations were set up at the "headquarters of... cooperatives" and "worksites" in the countryside, in "factories or offices" in the towns and at the bivouacs of army units wherever they might be. This meant that all voting would take place under the control of the Communist Party cadre in charge of these units of organization in which all Cambodians worked. Their control of the ballot was thus assured.

On polling day, Khieu Samphan took Sihanouk, Penn Nouth, their wives and two close relatives of Sihanouk to vote at a ballot booth set up in Phnom Penh's railway station. They were allowed to choose among several candidates to represent "railway workers".

Elsewhere, contrary to the electoral regulations drawn up in July, which had been broadcast on the radio on March 10, urban evacuees and other "new people" were generally not invited by the cadre to participate in the exercise.

In practice, rural cadre in many areas instead applied the rules which regulated rights of political participation in the life of co-operatives. These divided the population into those who enjoyed "full rights", those who were "candidate" members of the co-operatives and "depositees".

Even among veteran residents of the pre-1975 "liberated zones", only those who were classed as "poor peasants, lower-middle peasants and middle peasants" or as other "rural laborers" and who had no relatives who had served the Lon Nol or Sihanouk regimes as civil servants were allowed to enjoy full rights in the cooperatives, including the theoretical right to vote in elections for cooperative leadership organs.

Pre-1975 residents of the "liberated zones" who were classed "feudalists" ("mandarins", "aristocrats" and "landlords"), as "petty bourgeois" (e.g., "intellectuals") or as "rich or upper-middle peasants" could only be "candidate" members of cooperatives. They were allowed to attend cooperative meetings, but not to vote.

Finally, all urban evacuees, regardless of class background, were considered "depositees" and not even allowed to attend meetings, much less vote. Thus, most adult Cambodians among the group of "new people", whom the Party itself estimated totaled in excess 2 million people, and which probably in fact numbered at least 1 million more, were disenfranchised.

Indeed, voting among peasant veterans of life under CPK rule was far from universal. Among those who did cast ballots, some were given a genuine choice among the Communist Party cadre named as candidates, but others were simply told to vote for the cadre who was in charge of the area where they lived. Elsewhere, voters were presented with a ballot bearing only one name and told that if they didn't want that candidate to cross the name out. However, the candidate and other local cadre were present at the "ballot booth" and watched over the voters, none of whom dared to cross the name out.

The results of the elections were announced 48 hours after they began in a communiqué from Khieu Samphan's Electoral Commission dated March 22. It claimed that 3,635,581 people, or 98% of the voters eligible according to the July regulations, had cast ballots.

It also published the list of the candidates elected, which suggested that troops, too, had enjoyed no choice about whom to vote: they had to choose the chairmen of the divisions or regiments of which they were members.

There were some notable absences among the assembly members. Although Nuon Chea was there as a representative of "Phnom Penh factory workers", Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan were not.

Ten days after the elections, a number of decisions were made in the name of the Party Central Committee which laid out the next steps toward the formal dissolution of the united front, above all GRUNK.

The decisions confirmed Pol Pot's ruling on March 11 that the Party should agree to Sihanouk's request to "retire", because the disillusioned Prince appeared to the Party Secretary to have exhausted his political usefulness. (The Central Committee was, however prepared to continue to allow Penn Nouth to perform a ceremonial political role as a deputy to Khieu Samphan in the three-person State Presidium provided for in the Constitution.)

It decided that Nuon Chea would function as chairman of the People's Representative Assembly with two other members of the Standing Committee of the Central Committee acting as its vice chairmen and about ten other figures to fill out a Standing Committee for the assembly. However, it indicated that except for those who were, like Nuon Chea, resident in Phnom Penh, all should "disperse to live with the people" in their constituencies as soon as the assembly had met to announce the appointment of a government, the State Presidium and the "election" of its own officers.

As for the government, the Central Committee decided it would be headed by Pol Pot with three other Party Standing Committee members, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Vorn Vet as deputy prime ministers.

In early April, Khieu Samphan formally accepted Sihanouk's resignation as chief of state and Penn Nouth formally dissolved the GRUNK cabinet.

On April 14, a communiqué announced that the People's Representative Assembly, after a meeting supposedly lasting from April 11 to 13, had selected Noun Chea as chairman of its Standing Committee, Pol Pot as premier with Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Vorn Vet as his deputies, and Khieu Samphan as Chairman of the State Presidium. Penn Nouth did not appear in any post, either because he had decided to withdraw or because the Party had decided his presence was no longer useful.

In fact, the assembly was in session for only two hours on the afternoon of April 12. Before the meeting, members were instructed by Nuon Chea that "the assembly belongs to the Party". He explained that they were to vote by raising their hands for the government and other officials whose names would be announced to them during the session.

For the occasion, members were issued white tunics to wear in place of their customary black shirts. After being photographed raising their hands in this garb, they were required to turn the tunics back in. Having thus served its purpose of formally ending the united front, the assembly never met again.

The institutional destruction of GRUNK and FUNK set the stage for the physical liquidation of many of their ex-members. As Pol Pot's and Nuon Chea's drive to eliminate feudal and bourgeois remnants throughout Cambodian society became more intense and more violent, more and more of them were arrested and executed by the security service.

By the time the Communist Party was driven from power, half of them were dead. Such purges struck the Communist Party and the People's Representative Assembly just as hard if not harder than the old united front bodies.

This reflected Pol Pot's and Nuon Chea's conclusion in 1977-1978 that the main threat to socialist revolution and their rule in Cambodia came from irremediable elements with the Party itself who were carriers and propagators of feudal and capitalist ideology and thus acting as agents of United States imperialism, Soviet hegemonism and Vietnamese expansionism.

As those accused of such crimes were systematically arrested and executed, as many as two-thirds of the assembly's membership was also wiped out.

Pol Pot's and Nuon Chea's purges and the deprivations they imposed on the population at large left Democratic Kampuchea highly vulnerable when Vietnam attacked it in late 1978 in retaliation against earlier border raids. The regime collapsed in two weeks, and its remnants were forced to flee to several points along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Meanwhile, a hastily assembled group of former Khmer Issarak who had gone to Vietnam in 1954, and former Democratic Kampuchea cadre who had taken refuge from purges there in later years, worked under Vietnamese tutelage to establish a new regime in Cambodia, which was dubbed the People's Republic of Kampuchea.

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