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What are the lessons of Gambia for Cambodia?

Senegalese soldiers of ECOWAS’s forces arrive in Banjul, Gambia, as they drive to secure the Statehouse on Sunday. Carlos de souza/AFP
Senegalese soldiers of ECOWAS’s forces arrive in Banjul, Gambia, as they drive to secure the Statehouse on Sunday. Carlos de Souza/AFP

What are the lessons of Gambia for Cambodia?

The recent peaceful transfer of power in Gambia, where former president Yahya Jammeh ceded power to the newly elected leader Adama Barrow without bloodshed, has caught people’s attention around the world, especially at a time when good news is in short supply. Cambodian political observers should pay particular notice.

With the next parliamentary elections only 18 months away, Cambodia can learn vital lessons from the Gambia crisis, especially given that the potential electoral imperative to transfer power has overshadowed elections past and future.

In particular, Cambodia needs to avoid what Dr Solomon Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African affairs, calls “the curse of an authoritarian electoral defeat”. This is a curse that plagues any country with long authoritarian rule, where questions about the fate of the outgoing leader and about the transition from authoritarian to democratic politics remain unresolved.

There are of course some major differences between the two countries: It is almost inconceivable that Thailand or Vietnam, China or the US would militarily intervene in Cambodia in the event of a severe political crisis or stalemate. Those days would seem to be long gone in Southeast Asia. Indeed, what the Gambia situation indubitably shows is that concerted and coordinated regional action – backed up by real military muscle – reaps significant dividends in terms of peace, security and democracy. Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) played its hand brilliantly and is a lesson to regional bodies all over the world.

Unfortunately, with so few democracies to its name, ASEAN suffers hugely by comparison with ECOWAS, which adopted a proactive, principled and resolute stance in the Gambia crisis. ASEAN would appear years away from such progressive action. Internal measures are therefore of particular importance.

First and foremost, Cambodia needs to do something unprecedented: Both parties should meet in advance of the elections to discuss and negotiate the terms of a potential transfer of power in the event of a CNRP victory in 2018.

What might such terms entail? Former president Jammeh’s eventual decision to cede power, after intense negotiations with ECOWAS and the opposition, shows that incumbent leaders respond well to three vital assurances that a responsible political opposition should make in good faith: (1) that there will be no reprisals legal or otherwise against them following a transfer of power; (2) that their assets will be left unmolested; and (3) that they will receive a secure retirement with full benefits as appropriate to their position as citizen, party leader and former head of state.

Often authoritarian leaders remain in power mainly because they want to secure their wealth and because they are afraid of what may happen after they leave power. This determination to continue ruling often comes at the expense of the people’s interests and political representation. Cambodia is no different.

Furthermore, when senior military commanders pledge their loyalties to the state rather than to a particular party, then the risks of bloodshed are significantly lessened. Once former president Jammeh realised that he could not rely upon the military’s support, then he knew the game was up and the regime swiftly crumbled.

It is vital therefore that the CNRP pledges its support for the military, the police and other state institutions, and guarantees that such institutions will be left largely in place in the event of a CNRP election victory.

That might nudge the military towards depoliticising and becoming impartial, something that manifestly failed to happen after the 1993 elections, when, as a result, an ill-fated power-sharing arrangement between Funcinpec and the CPP ended in factional fighting across Phnom Penh four years later.

Negotiations will do much to safeguard peace in 2018 and beyond, in the event that the CPP is requested by the electorate to hand over power. It is essential that contingency plans are put in place for that eventuality. If not, and the CNRP wins the elections, serious political turmoil will ensue, the will of the people will be thwarted, and a crisis of legitimacy will follow.

The CNRP should make these assurances to the CPP, and the CPP should make corresponding assurances that it will oversee genuinely free and fair elections, and that it will make way peacefully if required.

Gambia managed to avoid a serious crisis and bloodshed due to the actions of its progressive neighbours. Without such assistance, can Cambodia take control of its own affairs and avert a similar political crisis? The Cambodian people deserve such assurances from their political leaders on both sides of the National Assembly.

Robert Finch is an independent consultant who has worked with groups in Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. He was legal and senior consultant for CCHR from 2010-13.

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