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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election debate - 'What's the alternative?'

Election debate - 'What's the alternative?'

AS the new government pushes ahead with plans for national elections next year, human

rights groups and foreign donors are wrestling with the issue of whether to support

a ballot that few believe will be truly free and fair.

At least one human rights group - warning that unfair elections would only legitimize

Hun Sen's "de facto one-party rule" - has effectively urged foreign countries

to withhold support for the elections until human and political rights are guaranteed.

Some foreign donors in Phnom Penh, meanwhile, argue that an international boycott

will only ensure that the polls are not free and fair, and likely promote autocracy

and oppression.

The elections are scheduled for May 23, 1998, a date agreed upon before last month's

ouster of First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Both Hun Sen and Ung Huot,

Ranariddh's replacement, have vowed to pursue the national elections, while plans

for commune elections have been dropped for now.

The national polls will in theory put Hun Sen, and his military action against Ranariddh's

Funcinpec party, to the test of public opinion. However, since before the fighting,

democracy and human rights workers have consistently expressed concern that the elections

will not be free and fair.

Those doubts have grown with Hun Sen's power-grab and the fleeing abroad of Ranariddh

loyalists and the more outspoken opposition politicians. At the same time, foreign

countries have supported elections as a way to resolve the political crisis.

A July 24 report by Human Rights Watch/Asia - entitled "Cambodia: Aftermath

of the Coup" - noted both a gradually-increasing foreign acceptance of Hun Sen's

"fait accompli", as well as "growing international consensus on the

desirability" of national elections.

Urging that the international focus be on human rights, not on elections, the report

said: "The destruction of opposition party infrastructures... as well as the

exile or internal displacement of their leadership and many party workers, the looting

of their offices, and a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation all militate against

the prospect that such elections can be free and fair."

Human Rights Watch said the world should not contemplate supporting Cambodian elections

until the people responsible for the murders of Funcinpec officials were brought

to justice, and exiled politicians felt that it was safe to return to Cambodia. If

those conditions were met, donors should support the establishment of an independent

electoral administration, the report said.

Otherwise, the elections would do little more than legitimize "the de facto

one-party rule that has emerged since the coup, since the opposition parties in Phnom

Penh have already installed pro-Hun Sen factions in leadership positions."

In Phnom Penh, one foreign official closely monitoring election preparations, who

would not be identified, said international donors had to take a longer-term view.

"The human rights people say, and I respect their view, 'How can you possibly

support these elections, they're bound to be fraudulent?' We have no illusions, but

my answer to them is 'What's the alternative?' If we don't support them, of course

they won't be free and fair.

"We're not all a bunch of knaves or a bunch of cynics," he said of foreign

diplomats and donor organizations. "We know it's going to be very difficult

to determine what constitutes free and fair elections. But if you look around Asean,

who has free and fair elections?"

"Reasonably" free and fair elections - as free as those in neighboring

Asian countries at least - were possibly the best that could be achieved, he said.

The international community would lose any influence it could have on the electoral

process if it refused to support it, and likely lead Cambodia, "in the mood

that Hun Sen is currently in" toward further human rights and democracy violations.

"By taking a highly principled stand, are you going to do more damage to the

ideals you are supposed to uphold? ... It is really a policy of engagement. I don't

think that is a cop-out - it's seen as the only viable way at this point."

He acknowledged that most donor countries were "basically looking for stability"

in Cambodia, and "in the context of realpolitik, most of the people around here

believe [Hun Sen] is the only one who is going to run the country in the near future".

But he denied that donors would turn a blind eye to Hun Sen gaining "legitimacy"

through elections marred by violence and intimidation.

Donors were loath, however, to make their financial and technical support for elections

"conditional". But they did want to see "a set of ground rules or

principles" for the elections agreed upon by the government.

While no one in the diplomatic community was insisting on the return of Prince Ranariddh,

most believed that politicians like Sam Rainsy and the Son Sann-led BLDP faction

had to be able to freely and safely take part in the elections.

Human Rights Watch/Asia, in its report, called upon the Cambodian government to rescind

arrest warrants issued for Ranariddh, and permit him and other exiled MPs to return

to their parliamentary seats.

Thun Saray, from the Cambodian NGO election lobby group COMFREL, also urged that

politicians abroad be able to return.

Without wanting to comment on the case of Ranariddh, Thun Saray said: "I think

if this election does not have Sam Rainsy or the BLDP people of Son Sann, I think

it will have less meaning."

Asked about the government's assurances that such politicians could return to Cambodia,

run their political parties and take part in the elections, Saray said: "We

need to wait for the laws, to see the reality of the enforcement of the laws."

The Ministry of Interior has unveiled the long-awaited draft Electoral Law and the

Political Party Law, currently before the Council of Ministers, which will lay the

election framework.

The draft laws ban convicted prisoners from voting or standing as candidates, which

observers noted could be used to prevent Prince Ranariddh - if convicted in absentia

of weapons and treason charges - from taking part in the elections if he returned

to Cambodia.

The draft laws, however, have won cautious praise for addressing some of the concerns

of democracy advocates. The laws were prepared by ministry staff under the guidance

of co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, a senior CPP member generally considered to

be a "moderate" within the party.

The most significant change in the Electoral Law from previous drafts is the provision

for a National Electoral Commission to be headed by an independent chairperson. Previously,

the ministry had proposed to have the co-Ministers of Interior head the commission,

which critics said would make a mockery of the need for neutral electoral administration.

The final draft provides for a 12-member commission, chaired and vice-chaired by

"neutral figures", approved by two-thirds of the National Assembly.

Questions remain about how "neutral" people will be identified. Sar Kheng,

in a meeting with foreign ambassadors and donor representatives last week, acknowledged

that they would be "hard to find".

Meanwhile, both the Electoral Law and the Political Party Law contain apparent attempts

to ensure the political neutrality of the police and army.

The draft Political Party Law requires that active military and police officials

not be members of any political party.

The Election Law prohibits "active" army, police or military police personnel,

as well as civil servants, court officials and monks, from standing as candidates.

To run for election, they would have to resign their positions.

A controversial "transitional provision" goes further, barring police and

military personnel from casting votes in the next two national elections. Government

officials say that provision will almost certainly be removed from the law, in the

face of opposition from military chiefs.

Thun Saray from COMFREL welcomed the draft laws as containing positive steps, but

was concerned by the lack of clear recognition of the role of NGOs in monitoring

the elections; for instance, there were no guarantees that NGO representatives would

be able to enter polling and ballot counting stations to observe the elections.

The law does say that national and international election observers will be allowed.

Hun Sen has previously said that he will allow foreign electoral observers, but that

they should pay their own travel and accommodation costs.

Sar Kheng, spearheading attempts to get foreign funding for the ballot, last week

put the elections' cost at $20 million, considerably less than previous estimates

of $30-40 million.

He said he hoped the Electoral Law would be passed by the National Assembly by late

next month. But observers and officials acknowledge that the government will be hard-pressed

to complete the necessary preparations to achieve the May election date.



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