All across Cambodia, citizens are glued to hand-held radios, monitoring partial
election results on UNTAC radio. But the very act of broadcasting tends to re-inforce
a widespread misunderstanding.
UNTAC, the Cambodian on the street, and especially Western journalists talk about
"giving up power" and "Parties winning the election". Power will
not be given up, only transformed. No party will "win" the election; they
will gain relative advantage in deciding what the new government will look like.
If things go according to plan, both of these acts, transformation and decision making
will be played out this summer in the Constituent Assembly.
Hun Sen was asked often before the elections whether he would give up power if he
lost. Though some might have been reassured by his answer, the question made no sense.
What he should have been asked was whether he would cooperate in the writing of the
constitution and the transformation of the government in light of it, should he not
gain the seats necessary to write the constitution unilaterally.
Many people are aware that the SOC has "won" in Rattanakiri, Mondolkiri,
and Preah Vihear, but "lost" in Phnom Penh and Kratie. While its "win"
in Rattanakiri will result in one seat in the Constituent Assembly for the SOC, its
"loss" in Phnom Penh will still net it five or six seats. "Winning"
in one province was less profitable than "losing" in another. It is a trivial
point, but one that seems to be over-looked. It is not the number of votes that are
won that is important, but rather the number of seats. The first leads to the second,
but "losing" does not in all circumstances bar a party from seats.
There is only one meaningful number in this election: 80 seats. If one party were
to win 67 percent of the 120 seats in the Constituent Assembly, that party would
be able to write the constitution by itself. Anything less than 67 percent will require
consultation and cooperation with at least one other party, a constraining and potentially
If one party got 67 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly it is reasonable
to say that the party won. But if preliminary results are indicative, this won't
happen. CPP will for the first time in its history be forced to share power and to
listen to the demands of other Cambodians.
If FUNCINPEC gets more than 50 percent of the vote, that does not mean that the government
will immediately be turned over, though people already act as if it does. The Bangkok
Post has reported the concern of Bangkok businessmen about a possible FUNCINPEC win.
That concern may not be mis-placed, but it is certainly premature. A FUNCINPEC electoral
lead is a long distance from being in a position to write and implement investment
and property law over which even a party with only one seat will have influence!
More importantly, it does not mean that the leader of FUNCINPEC will be the Prime
Minister and be able to form the government after the Constituent Assembly finishes
its work at the end of the summer. That depends on the content of the constitution.
The constitution may well stipulate that a government can only be formed by a party
or coalition of parties who constitute (for example) more than 60 percent of the
seats in the assembly. Such a stipulation makes it more likely that coalition rule
will be necessary and may even be defensible on "democratic" grounds.
These misunderstandings are not without consequence. If the result of the election
is understood in absolutist terms-"winning" and "losing"-then
the result of the election can only be seen as "giving up power". This
will only reinforce already strong worries among the people of Cambodia about war.
If the "misunderstanding" infects the decision-making within the current
government, the situation will be even more dangerous. Unfortunately, there is evidence
that this is the case.
This "misunderstanding" underlies the current panic of the CPP. With only
partial results in, the party is demanding re-balloting in four provinces. Not only
are current results falling far short of Hun Sen's confident pre-election prediction
of a land-slide, it is possible that CPP will not get 50%. But panic is only rational
if all power or influence over the situation is likely to be lost, but more disturbing
if the partial loss of power is seen as tantamount to losing it all. It is possible
that the later is the case. This is a government not used to sharing power; none
in Cambodian's history has.
The misunderstandings current in this campaign are a partial product of history.
There has never been a "loyal opposition" in Cambodia, that is an imported
idea. Opposition has always been from the "jungle".
The people of Cambodia know that no Cambodian government has ever given up power
without fighting. The people of Cambodia have never known power to be peacefully
transferred. But their mis-understanding is not that they do not realize that power
can be peacefully transferred. Rather that they don't understand that this election
will result in the transformation of power (hopefully by the institutionalization
of democracy), not the transfer of all power. CPP will retain considerable influence
even if it is edged by FUNCINPEC.
There is evidence that Hun Sen and the CPP understand power only in absolutist terms.
It is possible that for them, power is not shared, it is accumulated and protected.
Governments are not transformed, they are over-thrown. If this analysis is correct,
then the Hun's Sen's mis-understanding could be truly dangerous.
In Siem Riep it was reported on 1 June that the workers at the local power plant
turned over the keys to the plant to UNTAC. Siem Riep was left without power or water.
Returns in Siem Riep show that FUNCINPEC has the lead in votes. Though it is hard
to know the motivation for "taking the money and running" in Siem Riep,
we can speculate. It results from a misunderstanding of the election.
Two factors in Cambodian politics lend themselves to the misunderstanding evidenced
by these city workers at the Siem Reap power plant.
First, it has been normal in Cambodia that all leadership positions, down to village
level are chosen or influenced by Phnom Penh leadership. These workers may have thought
that the FUNCINPEC lead would result in replacement of state leaders and employees
at all levels. In Cambodian politics, it is traditional that to the winner goes the
spoils. It if said that to the winner goes the spoils. It is said that in Cambodia
no job has been made available in the last thirteen years to anyone unwilling to
pay for it, or who did not know someone in power.
Second, there is a great deal of evidence that the Cambodian people think of this
election, not in terms of creating a mandate for the writing of a constitution, not
in terms even of the winning by a party, but rather in terms of leading personalities,
Hun Sen or Ranaridh. It is understood more as a Presidential election than a constituent
assembly election. If this is true, the election will naturally be seen as a "horse
race" with one clear winner. This again reinforces the view that the winner
gets it all.
In this election there are no real losers, except for the small parties who will
not get an independent voice in the formation of the new government. The real winners
are the Cambodian people, but not if their leaders retain a "win it all at all
costs mentality". The international press could help this by concentrating less
on who is currently in the "lead", and more on the consequences of this
election on the next step: the writing of the Cambodian constitution.