On Sunday May 23 More than a thousand polling stations will open across Cambodia.
Potentially more than four and a half million Cambodians will vote, cashing in on
the commitment made to them in the Paris Peace Accords: "The Cambodian people
shall have the right to determine their own political future through the free and
fair election of a constituent assembly."
The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) believes that the Cambodian elections will be
"free and fair." Prum Sokha, first deputy chief of the CPP, says for "Akashi
to declare the election as not free and fair is ridiculous." The leaders of
most of the other parties believe the opposite.
The Paris peace accords require Mr. Akashi to make public an assessment of "free-ness"
and "fair-ness" after the election, but before the results are announced.
For many, the evaluation can already be made. As one party leader put it: "How
can the election be free and fair if everyone has guns?"
Both the U.N. and Cambodia will suffer if the result of an election widely considered
not free and not fair are accepted. The finding, "free and fair," or "not
free and fair," is crucial to both the future of Cambodia and the U.N. To conclude
that the elections are not free and fair may send Cambodia spinning into a prolonged
period of instability, one for which the United Nations is neither financially nor
operationally prepared. But to call unfair elections fair is to impose a government
on Cambodia that it might otherwise not have wanted.
The dilemma is deepened if we consider that the finding will be seen as an evaluation
of the United Nation's effort here in Cambodia. The credibility of the finding will
depend on some congruence between the finding and the reality of the situation in
Cambodia. The U.N. will suffer to the degree that little evident congruence is seen.
The elections to be held this week are the culmination of 18 months of Herculean
labor by the United Nations, particularly of the Electoral Component. Professor Reginald
Austin, the chief electoral officer in Cambodia, says "holding an election was
the ultimate critical objective" of the United Nations effort here. Mr. Akashi
has characterized the elections as the "focal point of the entire operations."
And UNTAC is pressing ahead with elections in spite of signal set-backs that call
into question the U.N.'s ability to deliver elections that are free and fair. Operating
in an environment of ever-increasing tension and danger, the United Nations has achieved
some real successes in the past year. Notable among these are repatriation and voter
registration. But UNTAC's failure to disarm the four factions and to gain real control
over the administrative structure of Cambodia make it impossible in the view of many
for these elections to be truly free and fair.
But are "truly free and fair elections" obtainable in any circumstance?
Chak Sarouen, the president of the Action for Democracy and Development Party, says
that absolutely free and fair elections are impossible. "There is no perfect
sphere, there is no perfectly dry surface-there are no perfectly free and fair elections."
Akashi has used language that implies that the elections, and the preparations and
campaign leading up to them, need only pass a lesser standard, and in fact already
do. Akashi told the International Polling Station Officers (IPSOs) gathered near
Pattaya, Thailand that these elections will be "mostly free and fair."
Some might be tempted to say that he has "moved the goal posts," others
would say that he is only facing reality. But we should not be fooled by the shift
in the language. Akashi and the U.N. must defend the characterization, "free
and fair enough" as much as he would have had to defend "free and fair."
He must be pressed for criteria and justifications.
If most observers agree with the U.N. that the elections were free and fair "enough",
the U.N. and the Cambodian people will benefit. But if most observers agree that
these elections were "not free and fair enough," what should the U.N. do?
Below I sketch out three options the U.N. might consider.
1) If these elections are not reasonably free and fair, Akashi must say so.
The mandate of UNTAC must be extended and the elections held under conditions that
can more credibly be defended as reflecting the informed will of the Cambodian people.
The U.N. can choose to be the most recent in a long string of outsiders who have
installed governments in Cambodia, or they can call a spade a spade. Conducting elections
central to the United Nations effort here, but they cannot be just any elections,
they must be free and fair. To declare legitimate elections that are not free and
fair is tantamount to the installation of a government in Cambodia by the United
Nations. The U.N. can blame the Cambodian people for the failure to achieve free
and fair elections if it likes, but it must recognize that conferring legitimacy
or denying legitimacy is something completely within its own power, a responsibility
it cannot shove off on someone else.
The government that gains international recognition at the end of this process cannot,
in principle, be controlled by those most successful in distorting the United Nations
effor- the campaign and the elections-to their benefit. Free and fair elections are
central to the transition to a government that reflects the will of the Cambodian
people. From this point of view, the massive effort and the billions spent on it
will be for naught if the elections are not in reality - rather than simply characterized
as- free and fair.
2) Alternatively, the U.N. can characterize the half-empty glass as half-full-this
seems the path that the U.N. is choosing. Many would say that granting international
recognition to a government that is the result of elections that are not free and
fair is an injustice to the Cambodian people. But the U.N. can choose to view the
elections in pragmatic, short-term consequential terms, rather than in more principled
democratic terms. If the election "hoop" can be jumped through, free and
fair or not, two things can happen, both to the benefit of Cambodia.
First, a Constituent Assembly will, under U.N. supervision, write a constitution
constrained by principles stated in the peace accords. The liberal democracy it must
establish will hold regular elections, allow a market economy and protect human rights.
Whether the U.N. will be any more successful in shepherding the constituent assembly
to a democratic outcome than it was in achieving a democratic outcome in the election
is an open question. But, pragmatically, this is less important than stability and
the second of the two benefits.
International recognition will allow investment in Cambodia and open the door to
international aid. Perhaps most significantly, an internationally recognized government
will, in principle, gain recognition of its independence, sovereignty and territorial
Even if a constitution is produced that is less "democratic" than many
would like, there is an arguable benefit to a legitimately governed Cambodia as it
faces the problems of its own development, integration into the world market system
and the solution of its educational, infrastructure and social problems, not to mention
confronting or conciliating the Khmer Rouge. Some may decide that for the achievement
of these benefits it is worth employing methods that are less than democratic.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the United Nations is not a disinterested party. To
admit that these elections did not meet some minimum standard of "free-ness"
and "fair-ness" would take the United Nations into uncharted territory,
the United Nations peace accords have no provision for failure. The current mandate
and the funding available to the United Nations has allowed it no margin for error
in the conduct of these elections. And it would be difficult to over-state the importance
of the successful completion of this mission to the U.N. There are other missions
on the horizon but the role of the U.N. will be defined and constrained by perceptions
of the successes and failures of this one.
3) Finally, one can argue that the elections should be declared not free and
not fair, but the resulting Constituent Assembly should be empowered anyway. An option
not considered by the writers or the signatories of the peace accords is for the
U.N. to declare that these elections were neither "free enough," nor "fair
enough," but to accept the results in any case. Such a finding has the virtue
of honesty, and if the achievement of democracy is made to be seen as the goal of
a process, rather than the outcome of a single transforming event (elections), the
credibility of the U.N. may be preserved.
The U.N. can strengthen its post-election hand in Cambodia, by making a stronger
post-election material commitment to ensure that stability is achieved, that the
hard won gains in human rights so far achieved are expanded, that a truly democratic
constitution is written, and that the next elections not only are held, but are "more
free and fair." They would of course be monitored by the U.N. A major draw-back
of this option is that the declaration would only confirm what the Khmer Rouge have
been saying all along.
Akashi will make the determination on "free-ness" and "fair-ness"
soon after the election. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say and how
he defends it.