​Cambodia's Elections: Retrospect and Prospect | Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia's Elections: Retrospect and Prospect


Publication date
25 September 1992 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Michael Vickery

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However bizarre it may seem, Cambodia has been singled out-among several Southeast

Asian nations with poor election records-to be graced by UNTAC's presence to achieve

an end to factional conflict via a free and fair election, now planned for May 1993.

Recent press items I have seen assert that this will be Cambodia's "first free

and fair election," or the first since Sihanouk won an election in 1955 following

the end of the first Indochina War and the Geneva Accords of 1954.

Moreover, during a month-long visit to Cambodia in June, I discovered that some people

in UNTAC, including some involved in preparing the electoral process, believed that

the upcoming election would be not only the "first free and fair" contest,

but the first election ever. Even those rather high up in the UNTAC bureaucracy had

only the vaguest notions of what Cambodia's electoral experience had been.

In view of this, readers of the Phnom Penh Post might welcome a rundown of Cambodia's

electoral history.

Let us start with a couple of facts which may be unpleasant, or at least surprising,

depending on where the reader's preconceptions lie.

The election planned for next May will not be the "first free and fair one,"

nor even the second. It will, however, be the first free and fair election since

1955, though not in the sense imagined by the journalist paraphrased above. In fact

it will be the first free and fair contest since the Geneva Accords, for the election

of 1955-although supervised by an International Control Commission (ICC) composed

of representatives from Canada, India and Poland, and declared 'correct' by the supervisors-was

really Cambodia's first crooked election. So watch out, UNTAC.

There have in fact been three elections in Cambodia which, as far as can be determined

from the written record and recollections of surviving participants, were to a great

extent free and fair in the sense desired by UNTAC.

These elections were multi-party and each party had its newspaper which informed

readers of its program, denounced its rivals, and, in the case of non-government

parties, criticized the government in power.

At election time the ballot was secret, the winners never got suspiciously overwhelming

majorities. But in perhaps the ultimate proof of fairness, in all three elections

the wrong party won, in the eyes of the real power holders, yet was not hindered

from forming a government.

These three free and fair elections were held in the last years of the French Protectorate-in

1946, 1947 and 1951-before Cambodia became independent. There was in fact some limit

on full political freedom. No overt communist party would have been allowed, and

it was assumed by the French that the Cambodian parties accepted their country's

position within the French Union. Independence could not be an electoral issue.

Following World War II, France-perhaps embarrassed by the collaboration of its Indochina

administration with the Japanese from 1941-1945, and with strong leftist parties

in the metropole-allowed herself to be dragged into the twentieth century, and adopted

a policy of permitting constitutional government in the three Indochina states, which

would then acquire a good deal of internal autonomy within the French Union.

Until then Cambodia-a protectorate not a colony-was governed indirectly by French

officials alongside and through the traditional Cambodian monarchy and local administration

which to a large degree were left in place. It was a system not unlike that now envisioned

by the UNTAC Civil Administration Component to supervise Cambodia pending the next


The constitution promulgated in Cambodia bore much resemblance to that of the French

Fourth Republic, with a strong National Assembly and ministerial government responsible

to the Assembly. The election of 1946 was for a Constituent Assembly to discuss and

adopt a new Constitution, and the contests of 1947 and 1951 were for the National


Three parties were formed in 1946, each led by a prince. One remained very small

and unimportant. Another, the "Liberals," represented conservative wealth

and was pro-French with no interest in independence. The third, the "Democrats,"

was a party of young intellectuals and progressive bourgeoisie, with a leader who

had returned from France with an excellent university record.

In those first three elections the Democrats won respectively 50, 54 and 55, out

of 67-78 seats contested. This was probably not only because their representatives

were more capable, but because they were known to have a covert program advocating

full independence, and seemed to maintain contact with, and respect for, the Cambodian

guerrillas fighting for independence along side the forces of Ho Chi Minh.

This made them the "wrong" party for the French; and a lack of respect

for traditional royalty- perhaps even a hint of republicanism-made them the "wrong"

party in the eyes of King Sihanouk too. Yet until 1952, the rules of democracy were

observed to a surprising degree.

Proof of this is not only that the Democrats were not cheated out of victory, but

that they, when in power, allowed their opponents to catch up with them.

Parties farther to the right of the Liberals began organizing for the second election

in 1947. The first was one under Lon Nol, who overthrew Sihanouk in 1970, but who

until that year had been one of Sihanouk's most reliable supporters.

By 1951, there were six of these new right-wing parties, none of which won more than

four seats in an election. But in the 1951 election, their total popular vote had

risen to 100,400 against the Democrats' 144,700 and the Liberals' 72,000. It was

clear that any movement which could unify the Right could cut the ground from under

the Democrats.

They had been weakened by the loss of their two best leaders, to illness and assassination

respectively, and had lost popularity through the incompetence and corruption of

some of their ministers, and perhaps by their failure to gain independence.

The relative decline of the Democrats and the organization of the right gave Sihanouk

the opportunity to force the government's resignation in 1952 and take control himself,

promising to achieve full independence within three years. In 1953 he dissolved the

National Assembly, proclaimed a special emergency law, and ruled alone with his right-wing


In October of that year, France gave Cambodia independence, happy to be able to present

it to a safe conservative elite, rather than to the anti-French Democrats.

Post Independence

Independence came within Sihanouk's time limit because France was losing the war

against Vietnam; and at Geneva in 1954 France was forced to recognize the independence

of all three countries of Indochina.

The terms of Geneva were a blow to the Cambodian communists who had fought alongside

Vietnam, for unlike their fellows in Vietnam and Laos, they were not allowed a regroupment

zone. On the other hand, the Geneva Accords were also a danger to the Cambodian right,

and to Sihanouk's style of government, in the provision that internationally-supervised

elections must be held by 1956 according to existing constitutions, and with freedom

for all political parties, including new ones formed by former communist guerrillas.

Sihanouk's autocratic non-parliamentary regime had to end, and it was expected that

the Democrat party, revitalized with a new leadership of university graduates returned

from France, together with a new leftist party representing the legal wing of the

Communist guerrillas, would make good showings, capturing at least strong minorities

in the National Assembly.

That was not to be. The conservative parties came together under Sihanouk, and the

pre-election government still controlled by Sihanouk appointees from 1953 were able

to prevent a fair campaign.

Harassment and arrest of Democrats and leftists, closure of non-Sihanoukist newspapers,

and even murder characterized the 1955 campaign, and the election gave all seats

in the new National Assembly to Sihanouk's group, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, generally

known in English as the "Popular Socialist Community."

The first election in independent Cambodia was also the country's first dubious contest,

and was nevertheless certified "correct" by the International Control Commission.

Thereafter free and fair elections were unknown in Cambodia. During the Sihanouk

regime the elections in 1958 and 1962-with a few exceptional, and unsuccessful candidacies

by former guerrillas in 1958-were single-party, single-candidate exercises.

In 1966 multiple candidacies, but no opposition parties were allowed, and most seats

were won by old politicos who gained votes by influence or money. Thirteen of the

winners had been unsuccessful candidates of right-wing parties in the 1951 elections,

and had not campaigned, or been nominated by Sihanouk, thereafter.

"I let them elect the most corrupt and reactionary Chamber I was ever subjected

to," Sihanouk himself was quoted as saying in 1966, not of course acknowledging

to his interviewer that the result was precisely what he had planned as a remedy

against growing influence of the left.

After Sihanouk's overthrow by Lon Nol in 1970, the election in 1972 was even more

fraudulent; and nothing need be said about the election announced by Democratic Kampuchea

[Khmer Rouge] in 1976.

By contrast the 1981 election held by the People's Republic of Kampuchea [the Heng

Samrin party]-single-party but with more candidates than seats-represented a step

back toward democratic practices.

Prospects for UNTAC

Is UNTAC like the French army in the 1930s, preparing for the last war, that is for

a situation like 1955? And if so, is their goal to promote a similar result or to

avoid it? Is Sihanouk making similar preparations; and are the other contesting parties?

That is, does UNTAC imagine that the danger to freedom and fairness next year comes

from a government which will try by hook or by crook to win all seats, as Sihanouk

did in 1955? That is no longer a danger, even if the State of Cambodia had once had

such an intention.

The very overwhelming presence of UNTAC, much greater than the 1955 International

Control Commission, has already blocked that outcome. There is no way that the Phnom

Penh government can impede campaigning and voting for other parties and the election

of their candidates.

There is, however, risk of a repeat of 1955, and the government and ruling party

of the State of Cambodia certainly do have 1955 in view, for they are the political

heirs of those groups who were victims of the peculiarly 'correct' exercise of 1955.

Sihanouk is still the one to watch. He may be trying for a repeat of 1955, even though

he is outside the government now formally in power.

Under the first Cambodian constitution, which was in force after the Geneva Accords

and under which the 1955 elections were held, Sihanouk as king was in a sense above

politics, even though he had forcefully intervened in 1952-1954.

Now again, as President of the Supreme National Council he occupies a similarly exalted

position, both in and out of political competition. As soon as he returned last year

he left his own party to his son Ranariddh, as in 1955 he declared at first that

he would not be the leader of any political party.

As noted above, before the 1955 elections, several conservative parties were formed

as vehicles for ambitious politicians. Some of them, like Sihanouk supporters Lon

Nol and his colleague Nhiek Tioulong were powerful in their own right, though none

were popular enough to win a significant number of seats for their parties in an


Now again, and as designed by the Paris Peace Agreement, new parties are sprouting.

Sihanouk's original Funcinpec is run by his son, while the "Khmer Neutral Party"

has formed under Buor Hell, and now an "Action for Democracy and Development

Party" led by Chak Saroeun has appeared.

Buor Hell is an old Sihanouk courtier of interesting background. His father, Buor

Hong, was a Sihanouk stalwart in the 1950s, and his grandfather was Prince Norodom

Phanilath, making him a distant cousin of Sihanouk.

Perhaps more significant has been his business activity since 1979. He was author

of the first publicized attempt, in 1982, to secure an agreement to export timber

from the contra zone of northwest Cambodia to Thailand, in a caper that Sihanouk

had apparently authorized.

On Nov. 27 of that year The Nation (Bangkok) headlined "Sihanouk Endorses Timber

Agreement," and cited Buor Hell, a high-ranking official in Sihanouk's group,

for the news that they had signed an agreement with a private Thai company to supply

one million cubic meters of Cambodian timber.

A few days later Sihanouk denied that he had backed the deal, but nevertheless was

quoted as saying he "hoped that the contract would be approved by other members

of [the coalition]."

I do not know how that affair ended, but the large-scale shifts in control of border

areas over the ensuing four years may have ended Sihanoukist control over the planned

timber concessions. Later Khmer Rouge export of timber to Thailand may have been

based on the Sihanoukist opening.

Other parties are offshoots of Son Sann's KPNLF-Son Sann's own party, and Sak Sutsakhan's

Liberal Democratic Party-while the SOC People's Party too has begun to split, and

will undoubtedly subdivide further.

Perhaps most interesting, or worrisome with 1955 in mind, was the announcement in

the People's party newspaper, Pracheachun, of June 27, 1992 that the People's Party

represents the continuation of the ideals of Sihanouk's old Sangkum Reastr Niyum.

In addition to his formal position, Sihanouk's situation bears other resemblances

to 1955. Then he enjoyed the aura of having secured independence, which had eluded

the Democrats while they dominated the National Assembly and government. Now he is

gaining credit, with much less justification, for getting rid of the Vietnamese and

assuring security.

Suppose that next May, in evident opportunism, and to unseat the SOC, the parties

of vague intention and under little-known leaders-like the right-wing splinter groups

of 1955-join under a Sihanoukist banner. The SOC, attempting to counter them, will

then reduce its appeal to the lowest common denominator of rallying to Sihanouk.

In those circumstances the SOC risks losing the support of Cambodians who approved

of its policies and record when they represented something different, and the right-wing

may carry off all, or most seats, in the new parliament. It will be formally free

and fair, but Cambodia will be saddled with a government like that which led the

country to disaster from 1955 to 1975.

And the Khmer Rouge, again, will be waiting in the wings.

- Michael Vickery is a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang who has

written extensively on recent Cambodian history.

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