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
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
"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
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
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."