Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Elections: How Free, How Fair?

Elections: How Free, How Fair?

Elections: How Free, How Fair?

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.


  • Purging Sihanoukville’s past with a new masterplan

    Amid illicit activities, haphazard development and abandoned projects, the coastal city of Sihanouk province needs a reset to move forward. A new masterplan might be the answer to shake off its seemingly mucky image to become the Shenzhen of the south Gun toting, shootouts, police

  • Chinese may be first in tourism revival: PM

    Cambodia's tourism industry is gearing up to roll out the red carpet for Chinese travellers after Prime Minister Hun Sen on September 17 indicated that the Kingdom could soon throw open its doors to international holidaymakers vaccinated against Covid-19 – starting with guests from China. Cambodia Chinese

  • Four-pillar approach in reopening of tourism: PM

    Cambodia is drawing up a four-strategy approach to promptly restore domestic and international tourism activity and put the industry on a transition pathway to a sustainable and inclusive model that is resistant to future crises, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The prime minister made

  • Airline says ready for green light to reopen international tourism

    Sky Angkor Airline Co Ltd on September 21 said it is ready to transport South Korean and Chinese tourists to the Kingdom once the Cambodian government makes good on plans to reopen its borders to vaccinated travellers. The Siem Reap-based airline made the remark during a

  • Tourism concerns laid bare

    To ensure the success of plans to reopen the tourism market for international visitors, Cambodia must pay utmost attention to two primary determinants – the ongoing paradigm shift in domestic tourism services towards the ‘new normal’, and the factors influencing choices of destinations among foreign holidaymakers.

  • Cambodian bride ‘badly treated, held captive’ by Chinese man seeks help

    A Cambodian woman who travelled to China to marry a Chinese man there was “badly treated” by her husband’s family and then had to be rescued and will be returned to Cambodia to ensure her safety. The rescue operation came about after the 25-year-old