Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Democracy: tied to the tracks, or fuelling the train?

Democracy: tied to the tracks, or fuelling the train?

Democracy: tied to the tracks, or fuelling the train?

A FAMILIAR analogy being shared by European diplomats on the European Union's (EU)

funding of the registration phase of Cam-bodia's election is that of a train now

leaving a station.

With the help of French, British and German promptness, it should arrive at its mythical

destination on July 26.

But the United States and a few others - including King Norodom Sihanouk - appear

as disjointed voices over the station's loudspeaker: this train shouldn't leave without

Ranariddh; this train shouldn't leave without a ceasefire, without repatriation of

refugees, without equal political access to the media, without dispelling threats

of violence and intimidation, and so on.

Laboring the anecdote, the train will likely be attacked and lose its way down a

sidetrack, but those aboard still believe it will arrive at its destination with

a credible Cambodian government that has an enhanced understanding of democracy.

Not all are so sure, and at the station the debate is fierce.

"There's not even a hint that these elections will be free and fair," says

a longtime foreign observer of Cambodia's emerging democracy. "We should just

recognize the [July] coup d'état of Hun Sen and go on as usual - why do we

need to spend $11.5 million on a farce," he adds of the EU's poll funding.

The inevitable rejoinder, from the "democracy isn't built overnight" school

of thought, is that the surest way of encouraging dictatorship in Cambodia is to

tell the country's leaders to forget about elections.

"Flawed but reasonably free and fair elections - as free as in Cambodia's neighbors

- is better than no elections," says a foreign official liaising with the government

over the elections. "If you turn your back on Cambodia, the forces of darkness

are ready to close in.

"In a country where changes of regimes have always been achieved by strife...

if with the support of the international community, they can establish a mechanism

for holding elections, I think we should not underestimate the importance of that."

The official acknowledges the counter-argument: if Khmers, as with the UN's 1993

effort with elections in Cambodia, go through a second ballot which doesn't produce

a government representative of their will, then the very concept of democracy is

lost. Democracy, as one foreign cynic puts it, becomes nothing more to Cambodians

than putting a piece of paper which doesn't count into a box every five years.

That is exactly what one Khmer NGO representatives expects for the future. "[The

world] will let the elections slide and legitimize Hun Sen. This is the end of democracy.

The next five years is most important to allow him to strengthen his grip on power.

Cambodia will be an Indonesia. How many terms has Suharto had?"

Again, the reply from some diplomats is: what's the alternative? Burma, for instance?

However heated the private conversations may be, everyone knows that the debate is

largely finished: the EU has got the train rolling, and Japan is expected to jump

aboard with some $7 million of election funding - and provide the collapsible ballot

boxes which will be used.

Everyone is aware of the dangers. As the EU's Southeast Asian director, Gwyn Morgan,

said at a Jan 16 press conference in Phnom Penh, Europe's decision is a "very

brave one".

While on one hand, the EU supports the elections as "a step down the road"

to a democratic, stable Cambodia, on the other it has "a responsibility to the

European citizens... contributing this money".

The EU - and any other election donor - reserves the right to withdraw its support

if it deems that the political climate is insufficiently free and fair.

Morgan identified the EU's main conditions: that the elections be open to free and

fair participation "for any political point of view that wants to express itself"

- but it does not insist on Prince Norodom Ranariddh's participation, saying that

it is for the ousted First Prime Minister to decide; that there be access to media

by all parties; and that the polling be secure.

The biggest question of the election funding remains unanswered: what would it take

for the foreign donors to pull out?

Some observers suggest that the EU, having staked its name on the polls, is unlikely

to embarrass itself by withdrawing unless absolutely necessary. "You don't put

in so much money and effort and then pull out two months later... it's just lip-service

when they declare they can pull out when the conditions are not met."

Except, most observers agree, unless Cambodia's election climate is so bad that it

attracts major headlines back home in Europe, Japan and other countries.

European diplomats are roundly reluctant to say just where the "line in the

sand is" on the election playing field, explaining that they don't want to clearly

define how far those in power can go before donors pull out.

"For example, say we told the government that Prince Ranariddh had to return

on such-and-such a date," one diplomat says. "Then the government could

make sure the Prince doesn't return until a day before that set date."

The rebuttal from EU critics is that if you don't set a date, then Ranariddh may

never be able to return.

But no one doubts that the real issue which could force a pull-out by donors is not

Ranariddh, nor any concerns about the neutrality of the election administration.

The EU, for instance, has turned a blind eye to allegations of vote-buying over at

least one position on the National Election Commission.

Diplomats say that the NEC membership could have been a lot worse. At the least,

a legally independent commission has been formed and if other institutional bodies

follow, such as the Constitutional Council, an administrative and legal foundation

for the elections has been laid.

Of course, an institutional framework is very different from a neutral political

atmosphere in the provinces and, as one diplomat suggests: "It may be that the

calculation is being made that if you provide the former, then you might be able

to forget about the latter."

Ultimately, the only real line in the sand is political violence - and how much will

be accepted.

"If everything has gone beyond the pale, we have the right to suspend our involvement,"

says one foreign official. "That would be extremely politically embarrassing

for Hun Sen, to have got so close only to have the donors [pull out] - even worse

than losing at the elections, to be abandoned at the post, so to speak.

"What will it take? The answer is that I don't know," the official continues.

"I guess all I can say is that when we get there, we will know. Maybe one assassination

we can live with, we'll make protests. Maybe two. But three or four? If it's becoming

a pattern, I think people will say that's beyond the pale," he says, before

adding: "I'm not sure whether that's understood by the other [CPP] side or not."

Another foreign official says that foreign benchmarks for a "free and fair"

election are "constantly moving forward, constantly out of reach".

Pressed on what it would take for donors to balk and abandon the elections, he said

he didn't know, but hazarded a guess: "The assassination of one prominent opposition

figure and a considerable amount of bloodshed, preferably with a camera present at

the time."

For the time being, the EU responsibility for determining whether a free and fair

political environment exists to ensure the continuation of the election aid falls

to four people: the Phnom Penh-based ambassador of France, Britain and Germany, as

well as the Bangkok-based EU ambassador, Michel Caillouet.

French and German ambassadors Gildas LeLidec and Harald Loschner declined comment

to the Post. Caillouet could not be contacted.

British Ambassador George Edgar, in an interview, cited the EU/Cambodian financing

agreement on "support to the democratic electoral process in Cambodia",

which spells out a brief laundry list of political considerations that he said should

be regarded by the Cambodian government as the issues the EU regards important.

The agreement calls for a "package of laws relating to the election", including

the law establishing the Constitutional Council, the political parties law, the national

election law and regulations stating how Cambodian nationality is defined.

The party and election laws have already passed, but the draft law on the long-delayed

Constitutional Council is at least two weeks away from National Assembly debate,

according to observers.

While the agreement does not specifically call for the formation of the Constitutional

Council and Justice Minister Chem Snguon has previously called for it to be cut out

of the majority of the electoral process, Edgar said the EU expects the constitutionally-required

body to be established and fulfill its functions under the election and party laws.

"Clearly for the assistance we are offering to make sense the structures must

be there," the ambassador said. "We certainly hope the Constitutional Council

will be set up soon."

The agreement also states that conditions be in place for political parties to be

registered and campaign "on an equal footing".

Edgar said that the ability of shadow parties, especially Kong Mony's version of

the Khmer Nation Party, to submit applications for registration is disturbing. However,

"I think we want to wait and see if political parties are being registered fairly,"

he said. "We would be worried if legitimate political parties were facing difficulties

getting registered."

The EU is also taking a wait and see approach to the agreement's call for an "an

independent and balanced National Election Commission. Despite there being no representatives

of self-exiled political parties on the commission and clear indications of CPP domination,

the European ambassadors again will reserve judgment until they see how the NEC works.

The presence of local and international election observers who will have "full,

independent and unimpeded access to all aspects of the election process" is

also required under the EU agreement, a condition Edgar deemed "an essential

part" of the elections.

The presence of observers is one of a handful of EU-funded projects outlined under

the agreement that will carry past the registration process into polling, which is

expected to be funded chiefly by the Japanese.

The Cambodian government has asked the United Nations to coordinate the international

observation effort, the UN Secretary-General's representative office in Phnom Penh

revealed, but the request has not yet been answered. Foreign observers, upon formal

invitation by the government, will likely be sent by the EU, individual EU member

states and UN member states. "Hundreds" of observers have been proposed,

but no firm figure has been decided, according to sources.

Access to media, including the ability to set up radio stations, and media training

are considerations that European diplomats feel strongly about. There are indications

that the Cambodian government has gotten the message - opposition politician Son

Soubert reports that the Information Ministry "is eager" to help his faction

of the BLDP re-start their radio station.

As the EU and Japan gear up to support the elections, most conspicuous by its lack

of participation is the United States. Its attitude, according to knowledgeable sources,

is intended as a strong signal to the EU on its doubts about the electoral process.

As of now, the US appears unconvinced of the government's commitment to free and

fair elections. Its main difference of opinion with the EU is on the continued absence

of Prince Ranariddh, whose participation it sees as crucial to a meaningful election.

Another indicator that will affect US involvement, sources report, is whether the

NEC will prove truly independent.

Should the US continue to remain purposefully distant during the elections - and

the debate is ongoing in Washington - it will most likely not be dependent on anything

the EU does or doesn't do.

The US may take a "middle course", neither throwing its full weight behind

them nor disengaging completely, with lower-profile contributions such as funding

NGO voter education and human rights projects.

Behind the scenes, the US is quietly urging King Sihanouk - who, through his monthly

bulletin, has been critical of the EU and Cambodian election efforts, saying that

there is no prospect of a free and fair ballot - to return to Cambodia. While the

US believes Sihanouk has a role to play in returning stability to the Kingdom, it

has been politely rebuffed however by the King, who recently refused an audience

with American envoy Stanley Roth.

Potentially, the US will have sway in the key issue of United Nations recognition

of the new Cambodian government after the elections. As a member of the UN's credentials

committee, it last year successfully blocked Hun Sen's bid to secure Cambodia's UN


Whether it will be prepared to do the same after the election is unclear. "Will

the US do it again alone?" asked one diplomat. "If the elections are not

free and fair but the international community accepts that, I would question how

long the US will fight against Cambodia getting the UN seat back."


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