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The 1981 elections: the genesis of polarization

The 1981 elections: the genesis of polarization

Like the the 1976 Democratic Kampuchea-organized polls, the PRK's

elections in 1981 aimed to legitimize the Vietnamese-backed communist regime, not

provide the people representation in the new government. Steven Heder revisits

the election in his continuing series.

Two years after Democratic Kampuchea collapsed in the face of a Vietnamese invasion,

the Vietnamese-guided regime that replaced it held Cambodia's next national elections

in 1981.

These elections in the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) were similar to those

of Democratic Kam-puchea to the extent that they were scripted from behind the scenes

by a covert communist party organization. However, instead of symbolizing the triumph

of peasants and workers in arms, they aimed at creating the illusion of a broad united

front support for the PRK and its repression of its armed and other enemies.

They were intended to quell opposition by demonstrating the consolidation of the

new regime's political administration and by persuading those willing to accept the

new symbolism that broad political support for the PRK existed among all Cambodian

social classes.

In fact, candidates were chosen and the balloting procedure controlled so as to ensure

that the elite of the reorganized but still secret communist party was overwhelmingly

elected along with subordinate members of the party and state structure whose backgrounds

were supposed to demonstrate virtually unanimous popular enthusiasm for the regime.

At the time of the elections, the armed opposition to the PRK included the regrouped

Democratic Kampuchea remnants (PDK), the Khmer People's National Liberation Front

(KPNLF) and the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative

Cambodia (Funcinpec).

PDK remained almost totally isolated from the population and were a minimal political

threat, although militarily they were capable of creating some insecurity in more

isolated rural areas.

Although the KPNLF and Funcinpec were militarily puny, they were politically significant.

Both were umbrella organizations built on top of the dozens of movements that had

emerged throughout Cambodia in 1979 to oppose the Vietnamese, the return to power

of the Khmer Rouge and the PRK's bureaucratic socialism. These movements had adherents

inside the PRK administration as well as among other Cambodians.

The KPNLF, founded in 1979 by Son Sann and other former Democrat Party figures working

with ex-Khmer Republic military officers, had significant potential appeal among

former "new people", especially surviving ex-civil servants and military

men from the Sihanouk and Lon Nol eras.

Funcinpec, formed by Sihanouk and represented inside the country mainly by the National

Movement for the National Liberation of Kampuchea (Moulinaka), was threatening to

make inroads among the peasantry through the clandestine networks of Moulinaka and

other movements with significant rural bases.

Although all opposition movements had been driven underground, their continued political

viability, and the political threat to the PRK that their amalgamation under KPNLF

and Funcinpec leadership represented, made them the implicit target of the PRK's

election theatrics.

The elections followed several waves of arrests of suspected members of movements

connected either to the KPNLF or Moulinaka or both, and two show trials that were

supposed to drive home the point that resistance to the PRK was futile. Those detained

were convicted of "counter-revolutionary" journalism, obstructing "efforts

to rebuild the country", undermining "the unity of the people", causing

the population to lose "confidence in the [PRK] leadership", seeking to

destroy "cooperation" between Cambodia and Vietnam, maintaining "close

contact with... reactionaries sheltered in Thai territory" and committing other

"subversive acts". They received sentences of up to 20 years. The senior

leader of one of the two movements was condemned in absentia to death.

These trials, which were held before the KPNLF and Funcinpec were compelled by China

and ASEAN to join a coalition with the PDK, made it clear that the PRK would brook

no real opposition and ruled out any possibility of power-sharing with non-communists

or those opposed to Vietnamese domination of the country.

The elections were conducted in such a way as to ensure that the PRK National Assembly

would be totally responsive to the control of the Cambodian communist party organization

that directed state affairs, but which at this time remained a covert body.

This communist party organization had been formed clandestinely in 1979 by former

Khmer Issarak and former Communist Party of Kampuchea cadre who had been brought

together by Vietnam to oppose Democratic Kampuchea.

Although its existence had sometimes been signalled or alluded to briefly, its leadership

and membership were still kept secret from the public at large.

It appears that given popular skepticism about the value of communist party rule,

it was considered best to proceed with elections first and only afterwards proclaim

Party hegemony.

The elections took place pursuant to a decree-law dated March 3, 1981 promulgated

by the Kampuchean Revolutionary People's Council (KRPC), the provisional government

of the PRK. It enfranchised "all citizens of the PRK, regardless of nationality,

sex, social standing, religious beliefs, cultural standard or period of residence,

who have reached at least 18 years of age."

However, it specified that candidates for election must be "loyal to the fatherland,

agree to follow the political line" of the regime and who "work tirelessly

in the service of the people". It said the Assembly would comprise 117 members

elected from 20 provincial and muncipal constituencies.

The decree-law made it clear that the elections were to be guided and overseen by

the state at every level. The ballot was to be organized nationally by a central

electoral council set up by the KRPC, and this council was empowered to verify the

elections and announce the results.

At the constituency level, election work was the responsibility of electoral committees

set up by the provincial and municipal Revolutionary People's Councils. These committees

were to "direct and control" local electoral commissions set up by the

local state administration. These commissions were empowered to "organize elections",

ie, to "prepare the polling booth and ballot box, distribute ballots to voters,"

and "proceed with the counting of the ballots", after which they would

send a report of the results to the relevant electoral committee and "local-level

Revolutionary People's Council". These were to pass the results on to the provincial/municipal

Electoral Committees and Revolutionary People's Councils, which in turn were to pass

them on to the central government and election council.

The decree-law declared that there should be more candidates than seats in every

constituency "in order to allow voters a choice in the elections".

Voters were to delete the names of candidates for which they did not wish to vote

and leave intact those of the preferred candidates. Voting was supposed to proceed

"according to the principle of... secret ballot", such that no one was

"allowed to see the voter in the booth mark the names of the candidates".

In mid-March 1981, the Secretary-General of the KNUFNS, a Revolutionary People's

Party cadre who was soon to become a vice chairman of the Electoral Council, explained

that the "essential feature" of the elections was that they would be "an

occasion to demonstrate the great strength of the revolution against traitors and


The next month, Revolutionary People's Party Standing Committee member and KRPC Chairman

Heng Samrin proclaimed at a rally at which he was introduced as a candidate that

the general elections "would be crowned with success" because the people

would never allow the regime's enemies to have a seat in the National Assembly.

Shortly thereafter, the KRPC Minister of Information declared that the elections

were intended to "spark fear into the hearts of our enemies", and that

voting had "the same significance as voting for our state".

Finally, Party Standing Committee member Hun Sen, then Minister for Foreign Affairs,

explained that the elections aimed to demonstrate that the PRK had been able to solve

the problem of state power by establishing a reliable political administration "from

[the] central down to sub-district and village levels". They were being held

to choose representatives from within the administration, "and not to choose

the political system."

In late March, the KRPC established an 11-member Electoral Council pursuant to the

electoral law. It was headed by Say Phuthong, a member of the Party Standing Committee

and Chairman of its Central Organization Commission, the Party's body for deciding

which Party member would do which jobs.

Its first vice-chairman was Bou Thong, another Standing Committtee member. He was

in charge of the Party's Propaganda and Education Commission, which was responsible

for political training of Party members and propagandizing the population. Most of

the remaining members were officials of the KNUFNS.

Although he was not on the Electoral Council, the KNUFNS was dominated by a third

member of the Party Standing Committee, Chea Sim, who had helped organize the PRK's

provincial administrative structure and its security apparatus in his capacity as

Interior Minister.

Chea Sim had been a peasant representative in the Democratic Kampuchea assembly before

the threat of purges provoked him into open opposition and he fled to Vietnam. Another

former member of the Democratic Kampuchea Assembly who was a member the Electoral

Council was a close associate of Chea Sim.

In early April, PRK officials gathered under Electoral Council auspices so that Say

Phuthong could instruct them in "electoral procedures" and how to "explain

them to [the] people in order to persuade them to vote".

Then, on April 20, the Electoral Council finalized a list of 148 candidates. It declared

that "among the candidates are state leaders, intellectuals, monks, workers,

peasants, technicians, craftsmen, engineers, physicians, journalists, combatants

and so forth", adding that "many are members of ethnic minorities".

Echoing the electoral law, it said they had "passed through scrutiny by the

KNUFNS Central Committee, central mass organizations and municipal and provincial

mass organizations."

In fact, the selection process had been dominated by Say Phuthong and Chea Sim. Together,

they had finalized the nomination of candidates from among senior Party cadre and

from other Party members and a handful of non-Party figures whom they considered

had demonstrated loyalty and who fulfilled its concept of "representatives from

all social circles".

Chea Sim's security apparatus vetted the lower-ranking and non-Party figures to ensure

they did not pose any security risks to the PRK, in particular that they did not

have any connections with or sympathy for the opposition.

On April 25, it was announced that the election date had been fixed for May 1, and

the next day, PRK radio began broadcasting the candidate lists, giving their official

government and front posts but no other information about them.

The candidates' names appeared on the ballot in rank-ordered positions, thus clearly

indicating which candidates were favored for inclusion in the Assembly. Voters were

instructed to implement the polling procedure laid out in the electoral law by deleting

a certain number of names or certain names from the end of the list.

One former official of a KRPC ministry in Phnom Penh explained that "the election

was not an election. Voters were told which persons to vote for and not to vote for.

The names at the bottom of the list were supposed to be crossed out".

A peasant from Battambang reported that the "big shots above" sent down

instructions to the sub-district polling places telling voters which names to cross

out. He added that he did not know who any of the candidates were and had duly crossed

out the specified names.

Although voting was in fact spotty, the Electoral Council claimed that 97.83 percent

of the 3,280,565 supposedly registered voters had cast ballots. On May 2, six days

before the Electoral Council met to officially validate the ballot, PRK radio began

broadcasting the final results for some constituencies.

The Electoral Council made the full final results public on May 9. These demonstrated

the extent to which the Assembly represented the Party and state elite at the central,

provincial and, to a lesser extent, district level. The results also reflected the

predominance in the PRK at this time of veteran communists with a substantial history

of association with Vietnam. Thus, all 24 candidates of the most favored group -

veterans of the communist wing of the Issarak movement who had gone to Vietnam in

1954 - were elected. (At the summit of this list was Pen Sovann, then head of the

Party Standing Committee. Say Phuthong was another leading member of this group.)

The slightly less-favored group of former members of the Democratic Kampuchea-era

Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) who had fled to Vietnam or otherwise left its

ranks later did almost as well. All but one of the 15 former CPK members who had

left its ranks before April 1975 and all but two of the 28 ex-CPK cadre who fled

to Vietnam after April 1975 were elected. (Chea Sim was a leading member of this


The results gave Party Standing Committee members from 90.32 percent of the vote

upwards, with the top three Party members receiving between 99.6 and 99.75 percent

of the vote, thus topping the poll. The largest number of losers - 28 - were among

those who had joined the PRK administration after 1979 without a communist party

background, even if they had since joined the Party.

In his speech to the opening session of the National Assembly in June, Say Phouthong

declared that the 117 members elected included 86 PRK cadre and 85 Party members.

He noted that "72.64 percent" of the delegates were Party members. This

was at a time when Party membership was at most a few thousand people, about one-tenth

of 1 percent of a total adult Cambodian population of some 3 million people.

With the Assembly thus packed with Party members, the stage was set for the emergence

of the Party and the further consolidation of the PRK state appartus.

Although the Assembly's term was to have been five years, it was later extended.

It thus remained in existence when the Paris Agreements were signed ten years after

its instalation.

The elections had thus contributed to a decade-long freezing of Cambodian political

alignments that pitted the PRK against PDK, KPNLF and Funcinpec, which had together

formed the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in 1982. The latter, constantly

pushed by Funcinpec and KPNLF leaders who believed that in a free and fair ballot,

PRK and PDK were bound to lose, consistently demanded such elections be a key part

of any political settlement.

International support for this position ultimately scuppered plans by the PRK to

hold new elections on its own terms in the hopes of avoiding a real contest.


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