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A lesson in power: The rise and fall of the Democrats

A lesson in power: The rise and fall of the Democrats

The first three elections held in 1946, 1947 and 1951 have generally been considered

reasonably free and fair affairs, and they resulted in assemblies in which more than

one political party was represented. Almost all accounts of these elections suggest

that the party which won all three - the Democrat Party - did so on the basis of

its mass popularity and despite opposition from the most influential of the residual

French authorities in Cambodia, from some of the most powerful Cambodian civil servants

and, increasingly, from then King Norodom Sihanouk.

However, the evidence suggests that the Democrat Party's victories were contingent

upon its members' control and manipulation of significant parts of the state apparatus.

This is apparent from a careful reading of the standard accounts and from other sources,

including interviews with some of the leading political figures of the era. It appears

that it was the Democrat Party's strength within the late colonial state apparatus,

and not popularity alone, that created opportunities for it to make political gains

via the ballot box and that this strength was indeed crucial to its electoral success.

There appears to be little doubt that Democrat victories would have been impossible

if they had not enjoyed acceptability among at least some French circles and significant

access to the late colonial state. The experience of the Democrat Party suggested

that access to the state was a necessary - although not sufficient - condition for

electoral success, and that control of the state, if fully exploited, could very

significantly affect the outcome of an election.

The Democrat Party's stance on the issues were crucial to its ability to win over,

organize and utilize the civil service for the party's electoral purposes, and this

in turn was crucial to its ability to get out and win the vote. The Democrats advocated

ending control by French officials over Cambodian affairs and resolving the problems

posed by armed anti-French insurgent movements (the various communist and non-Communist

Khmer Issarak, or "Emancipated Khmer", groups) by peaceful means. They

also advocated both keeping Cambodia out of any Indochina federation and not involving

Cambodian troops in the French-led war against the communist-dominated Democratic

Republic of Vietnam. Finally, they advocated giving a greater role in public life

to young, relatively highly-educated Cambodians, whose advancement would necessarily

be to some extent at the expense of older Cambodian bureaucrats or members of the

royal family who lacked higher education. This combination of policies and promises

evidently appealed not only to younger civil servants, but also to the population

at large.

However, popular appeal was translated into votes via the Democrats' exploitation

of its members' domination of key sectors of the state bureaucracy. It seems likely

that in the absence of this factor, the party's popularity would have been insufficient

to ensure electoral success. It also seems likely that the Democrats' use of their

access to the state helped to win the party a higher share of the vote than it would

have achieved merely on the basis of the popularity of its policies.

The Democrat Party was established early 1946 by Prince Sisowath Youthevong, a junior

member of one of two houses of the Cambodian royal family, to contest the constituent

assembly elections that were held at the end of that year. He oversaw its foundation

upon his return from a considerable sojourn in France, where he had become a member

of the French socialist party and was thus well-received in important metropolitan

French circles. In April 1946, a provisional leading committee of the Democrat Party

was established comprising ten members. Together with Prince Youthevong, they comprised

the party's leading politicians and financiers. The politicians included the headmaster

and a professeur at the state-run Lycee Sisowath, the country's only advanced secondary

sch-ool, a vice minister in the government, the chef de cabinet of a ministry, and

two chiefs of ministerial services, that is, six middle or higher ranking civil servants.

The financial backers included two timber magnates, a businessman and a doctor. Sixteen

more men comprised the rest of the top layer of party activists or sympathizers.

They included the governor of Phnom Penh and his deputy, three ex-provincial governors,

another vice minister, two police commissars, a deputy chief of the national intelligence

service (Surete), the chief of one ministerial bureau and the former chief of a bureau

in a second, another professeur from Lycee Sis-owath, three minor civil servants,

two former civil servants who had gone into private business, and one prince of the

royal family. Locally, the party was organized into provincial and district committees

within the civil service, where members were grouped according to the part of the

civil service for which they worked. Provincial and district party organizations

were typically based in and often dominated the local state administration, which

was used to mobilize support and block activities by rival parties. Party propaganda

work was aimed intensively at civil servants through networks of clienteles in the

state administration, and mass-level propaganda work was largely ignored.

Thus, from its foundation, the Democrat Party was rooted in the younger ranks of

the civil service. After, as one French political study recalls, "the vast majority

of young Cambodian civil servants, recently graduated from the Kingdom's schools,...

rallied... to the Party," the Party was able to gather the support of civil

servants at the crucial srok (district) level in the run-up to the 1946 elections.

Civil servants voted en masse for the Democrats and those working in rural areas

prevailed upon peasants to cast their votes for the party. In short, the Party won

the elections thanks to the "massive support" of the civil service. The

resulting "almost incredibly sweeping victory" gave it 70% of the popular

vote and 75% of the assembly seats (50 of the 67 available). According to one Democrat

who later turned against the party, this margin of victory owed something to fraud

because local authorities who were Democrats tampered with ballots and ballot boxes.

On the basis of this victory, the party formed a 12-man cabinet headed by Prince

Youthevong in which the Democrats held eight of the 12 seats. Concurrently with being

premier, Youthevong was also Minister of Interior, and the Democrats in addition

controlled the national defense, education, information and supply ministries. The

party reportedly hoped to use the interior ministry in particular to ensure its political

position and enhance its prospects in the upcoming elections for a full-fledged legislative


However, after Prince Youth-evong died unexpectedly in July 1947, one of the first

moves of the non-Democrat who replaced him as Prime Minister was to appoint a non-Democrat

as Minister of Interior, and the new appointee proceeded immediately to appoint a

non-Democrat as head of the national police. All this was done over the vociferous

opposition of the Democrat Party majority in the assembly, and one leading Democrat

of the period later remarked that its enemies hoped thereby to begin to break its

power base in the civil service. Nevertheless, the Democrats held on to seven of

the 11 seats in the cabinets, including the deputy premiership and the post of Chief

Minister of State, and they controlled the ministries of finance, national defense,

religion, education, and information. Moreover, in the run-up to the elections, the

Democrats passed legislation removing restrictions on party political activities

by civil servants, believing that removal of such restrictions would improve their

electoral chances.

They indeed improved their performance in this second round of balloting in that

they increased their share of the popular vote from 70 to 73%, although they captured

a smaller proportion of the seats, taking 44 of the 64 available (69%).

The Democrats controlled the government throughout 1948 and into 1949, and the party's

senior-most leaders attempted to exploit this situation to further solidify its base

throughout the administration. This included appointing loyal Democrats into more

positions at the provincial and district levels. However, between 1949 and 1951,

the Democrats and the assembly increasingly lost out in a series of confrontations

with Sihanouk and their grip on the state and the local administration was undermined.

The party's popular image was tainted by a series of corruption scandals and episodes

of public bickering and back-biting among its leaders. Splits within the party were

exploited by Sihanouk and others who co-opted dissidents and rewarded them with government

jobs, including the premiership and ministerial posts, as well as appointments in

the local administration.

Moreover, the 12-man cabinet in office at the time of the elections held in 1951

contained no Democrats. Seven were without party affiliation, while the other five

were connected to parties that competed with the Democrats in the ballot. The latter

controlled the ministries of information, finance, foreign affairs, public works,

and religion.

Democrats later complained that the government was far from neutral vis-a-vis the

elections, and that ballot box rigging was used against it.

Nevertheless, the original party leadership maintained a strong network of support

in the central and local administration, as well as among teachers in the state school

system. This latter network helped it win the 1951 elections, but this time its margin

of victory was much smaller than in 1946 and 1947. It took only about half of the

popular vote, although it nevertheless managed to hold on to 70% of the assembly

seats (54 out of 78). It lost most spectacularly where its rivals or enemies were

in unchallenged control of the provincial and subordinate district administrations,

such as in Siem Reap. There, four seats were won by the "Victorious Northeast

Party" of Dap Chhuon. This former Issarak insurgent had been in control of the

province since 1949, when he was put in charge of it to reward him for having "rallied"

with his forces to Sihanouk.

After the elections, the Democrat Party attempted to recoup its losses within the

state apparatus. Not only did its Leading Committee take over the entire cabinet,

it also proceeded to replace provincial and district governors with Democrat figures

drawn from party organizations at these levels. However, the Democrats' government

was ousted in 1952 in a constitutional coup conducted by Sihanouk and the French.

The King dismissed the cabinet and assumed the prime ministership while French-commanded

troops surrounded the National Assembly.

When it reconvened in 1953 and refused to grant Sihanouk special powers, he sent

Cambodian troops to surround the assembly and simply dissolved it. Sihanouk then

began a purge of Democrats from the ranks of the civil service. At the same time,

he appropriated to himself the most important and most popular plank of the Democrats'

political platform: the call for independence from France. He launched what was termed

his "Royal Crusade for Independence". This was crowned with successes during

1953 as most of the residual powers of France over Cambodian affairs were transferred

to the Kingdom.

- Steven Heder is alecturer in Politics at the School of Oriental and African

Studies, London


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