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Lessons from the 1998 national election

Lessons from the 1998 national election

Editor's note: Glenys Kinnock was the European Union's Special Representative

to the 1998 Cambodian national election. The following is taken from her

previously unpublished report to the EU after the 1998 election, which may have

some relevance for the observation of this weekend's local elections.

The European Union was heavily criticised for "opting in" to this

process [the 1998 elections in Cambodia] but I maintain my original support for

the need for the EU to offer its logistical and technical assistance. It was

certainly a Commission priority and also a priority identified by the UK


The registration process, which accounted for the large

majority of EU assistance, was carried out efficiently and exceeded

expectations. The numbers registered gave a strong indication that there was a

clear willingness on the part of the people to participate in the electoral


It was therefore with deep regret I saw that, over three months

after polling took place, that process remained inconclusive. While the

country's economy was in free fall, the political parties were stuck in

stalemate and outstanding issues of electoral fraud remained unresolved.

After the counting and tabulation processes came to an end and the

majority of international observers had left the country the situation in

Cambodia became increasingly untenable. The National Election Committee (NEC)

failed to respond to the official complaints submitted by the various political

parties and it was discovered that last minute changes to the election formula

were made without consultation, behind closed doors. The opposition parties

asserted that the NEC's failure to address their complaints was unacceptable and

that the changing of the formula was both illegal and unconstitutional.

The significant effect that the change of formula had on the final

results of the ballot made it very difficult for FUNCINPEC or the Sam Rainsy

Party to accept the result. It was, therefore, inevitable that there would be a

long period where the political parties remained entrenched and intransigent,

despite King Sihanouk and others' attempts to mediate. This was detrimental to

both the political and economic stability of Cambodia and brought increased

suffering to her people. It was a situation that could and should have been

avoided. The post-election situation was very difficult for the NEC but it is to

be acknowledged that they mismanaged their response.

After the elections

in Nicaragua, Somoza's analysis of the result could have been paraphrased as:

''You won the election, I won the count". In Cambodia, Hun Sen's post-election

jingo could be: "You won the election, I won the formula."


teetered between democracy and authoritarianism and the international community

showed little interest. Arguably, our observer team withdrew too early and at a

time when there was an ever-increasing need in Cambodia for diplomatic

intervention. The European Union made a great financial and political investment

in Cambodia's elections and the Cambodian people showed once again their will

for democracy by turning out in great numbers to vote. We should have shown a

greater respect for that will by remaining more closely involved and engaged

until a satisfactory conclusion to the process was reached.

When we

committed our 11 million ECU to the elections our remit was clear but our terms

of reference, though rigorously written, were not rigorously observed. It is my

overriding feeling that if the European Union is going to make a positive

contribution to future international elections and the promotion of democracy,

then they need to make a careful analysis of what has happened in Cambodia and

adapt their approach accordingly.

European Union

Observation Unit (EUOU)

I attended the STO [Short-Term Observer] briefing sessions and was generally

very impressed by the breadth and quality of information provided. I did however

feel that more information could have been offered on actual observation

techniques and details for completing observation report forms. There could also

have been a greater focus on observation of the count and vote tabulation

processes, these being the areas most prone to fraud and contention.


was made very clear to all observers that their role was observation only and

not monitoring. I can understand the importance of non-intervention but this

can, I think, be carried to extremes. There were a number of occasions on

polling day when there was just a genuine misunderstanding of procedure on the

part of polling station staff. Just a couple of words of information, clarifying

the situation would have been both welcomed and used constructively.

There was, apart from a few notable exceptions, a euphoria amongst the

STOs about the way "the day" went. However, I remained nervous about the context

in which we were working and very conscious of the UN human rights concerns

which had been relentlessly raised.

It is both unusual and wrong not to

bring back Long Term Observers (LTOs) for a full debriefing. I did ask for this

but was told that it was not logistically possible. I had the opportunity of

talking to some of the LTOs during my visits to the provinces. I found their

analysis of the situation on the ground both insightful and helpful. It is my

understanding that it is usual practice to receive debriefing from long term

observers before an opinion can be given.

At a meeting on 'The Future of

Electoral Observation' in Copenhagen on the October 26 and 27, 1998, which I

attended on behalf of the President of the European Parliament, it was said of

the Cambodian elections that "The operation went well but unfortunately the

patient died."

Domestic Observers

Domestic observer teams are pivotal to the unbiased analysis of an election.

The people who run the NGOs and who make up the teams are nationals who

understand the system within which they are operating and, what is more,

understand the language. How would a short term observer from, for example, the

UK know whether or not there was a village chief in attendance at a polling

station, whispering death threats to the queuing electorate?


COFFEL had the administrative capacity and know-how to deploy thousands of

observers. In some cases they were the only observers in polling stations in

outlying provinces, as these areas were restricted to international observers

for reasons of security.

COMFREL, COFFEL and NICFEC deployed thousands

of well trained, easily noticeable observers, throughout Cambodia. They had a

strict reporting back procedure and were an extremely reliable source of

information. Despite all this, the EU and other international teams, including

the JIOG [Joint International Observer Group] had no official link with them and

did not take in to account their reports.

Role of the

European Union's Chief Long Term Observer

My role, although defined, was, for whatever reason, neither understood nor

supported, particularly by a number of EU Member States' representatives based

in the region.

I was deeply concerned when I discovered that Mr Linder

(the EU's chief long term observer) had taken on the role of Chair of the JIOG

as I felt that it compromised the EU's position, when giving an analysis of the

election process.

As the main donors to the electoral process, the EU

had a powerful voice and a very strong position on the JIOG. This was undermined

by the fact that Mr Linder had to strike obvious compromises as Chair of the

group. Mr Linder's role should have been a purely technical one, instead he

became politicized by his involvement in the JIOG.


International Observers Group (JIOG)

The JIOG apparently started its life as a meeting of ambassadors and then

turned into a meeting of leaders of country delegations. During the week of the

election it met four times and issued three statements.

In principle,

the idea of such a group is a good one. It provides the international community

with the opportunity to pool its analysis and come out with a strong and fully

co-ordinated position.

However there were many aspects of this group

that called into question both its efficacy and integrity. Conditions of

representation were not clear; countries who had provided extensive funding for

a significant number of observers had the same representation and bargaining

powers as countries like Burma, which, I have since been informed, had deployed

only one STO, who was an embassy official. It caused me real concern that

countries such as Burma, China, Malaysia and Indonesia should be considered

qualified to participate in such an analysis at all.

As the name of the

JIOG group suggests it should be made up of heads of national observer teams,

people without political motivation and with extensive experience of election

monitoring. It is, therefore, inappropriate that ambassadors with clear

political priorities should be representatives of observer groups. They had not

coordinated their STO teams and were consequently not in a position to make a

technical analysis. Certain Member States' diplomats were present and were

clearly influencing their national representative at the table.

Conclusions of the JIOG were not decided by voting but by consensus.

This made for extremely lengthy meetings (another negative signal to the press)

and deeply unsatisfactory decision making methodology. The professional

observers, eg the British, Nordics, Australians and Canadians, were having to

deal with diplomats and politicians who had a clear political agenda of their


The statement of the group was clearly being used as a political

tool and the argument over the loaded vocabulary 'free and fair' became a

sticking point which was ruthlessly targeted by the press.

My subsequent

studies of recent elections have revealed that there has been an understanding

that we should no longer feel that any set vocabulary is appropriate in all

circumstances. However, the European Union seems determined to continue using

this tired and politicised language, even after what occurred in Cambodia last

July. For example, the words 'Free and Fair' were recently used, by the Council,

in the context of the forthcoming elections in Nigeria.

ASEAN members

were clearly anxious that the terminology was used as it had already been hailed

as the precursor to Cambodia's entrance into their regional grouping.


had become very clear on the run up to the elections and in the immediate

aftermath, that the use of the words 'free and fair' would be seen as an

endorsement. I made my position on this vocabulary very clear, both in the JIOG

meetings and in my own statement. My avoidance of those words has, in my view,

been extremely important to the EU's position. It has enabled the European Union

to detach itself from the heavy criticism the international community has since

been subject to, for the unsatisfactory and unstable situation that Cambodia is

still in.

The JIOG issued: one statement two days before polling day

dealing with the pre-election period; one on the day after polling day while

counting was still going on; and one brief statement three days after polling

day. By separating the pre-election events from polling and counting, human

rights infringements were effectively ignored in what is generally recognised as

the most important statement issued. Information available to the JIOG the day

after polling day was very limited as many STOs had still not returned from the

field and none had yet been debriefed. These simple facts prove that both the

timing and the content of the JIOG statement were questionable. They did not

rely on solid technical information as they were made before that information

could be properly collated.

It is my understanding that the UN have

investigated their role in the Cambodian elections and have decided never to

replicate what happened in July 1998.


The European Union needs to accept that democracy is not synonymous with

holding elections. It is a peaceful and essential way of resolving how to

allocate power and authority.

In Cambodia we took a snapshot of a couple

of days with a backdrop which was made up of outside pressure to permit that

country to join ASEAN, gain a UN seat and join a partnership with the EU. We

should learn from what occurred in Cambodia, and from other elections in which

we have been engaged, and avoid being perceived by the opposition (however

wrongly) as legitimising and endorsing a deeply flawed process.


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