Elections 1998 - will they be held, will they be fair, and will they change anything?
Jason Barber looks at how Cambodia, and the world, will handle the Kingdom's
AS the United States Defense Department puts it, the prospect of Cambodia arranging
fair national elections on schedule in 1998 is "not entirely outside of the
realm of the possible."
Apparently intended to be positive, the comment - rebutting another government agency's
pessimistic report on Cambodia - hardly brims with optimism.
As Cambodia totters toward the most critical test of its democratic future, there
are fears that the election process could fall off the tracks.
The worst scenario? That the government will dominate the election organization,
prompting inevitable complaints that they won't be fair, and that they will be marred
by violence and intimidation.
Then there are worries that a change in electoral system could see a new government
elected without the support of most Cambodian voters, breeding political unrest.
Some doubt elections will be held at all.
"I predict the elections will not be held till 1999 or the year 2000,"
says Funcinpec MP Ahmad Yahya, citing a lack of progress on the necessary laws and
The US General Accounting Office (GAO) report - which both the Defense Department
and State Department took issue with - also doubted Cambodia's election prospects.
"The country lacks the electoral framework and the resources needed to hold
elections," it said. "Although US and other foreign officials estimate
that creating such a framework will take considerable time and involve many difficult
political decisions, little has been accomplished so far."
Some people wonder where the world - which pumped $3 billion into bringing democracy
to Cambodia in 1993 courtesy of the UNTAC operation - is now.
There are signs that donor countries are less than eager to put up big money for
the elections, or to pressure the government to hold them on time around May 1998.
The US State Department, responding to the GAO report, wrote: "The table for
scheduling elections in mid-1998 is not set in stone. The important thing is to have
free and fair elections, not that they be held in May 1998."
"Both are important, free and fair elections and that elections be held in 1998,"
responds Kassie Neou of the Cambodian Institute for Human Rights.
"We don't want the people of this country to feel betrayed. We have taught people
about democracy, about their right to vote...and now we say elections are not important
in 1998? No, no, no, they are important."
A Western human rights worker says of the State Department comment: "Is that
what the [US] embassy is saying to the Cambodian leaders? If so, they are stabbing
Cambodians in the back."
New US Ambassador to Cambodia Kenneth Quinn replies: "I don't think we're in
the business of trying to influence the timing [of elections]."
Australian Ambassador Tony Kevin says: "The timetable should be adhered to unless
there are major reasons that the Cambodian parties agree to. At this point, we don't
see any legitimate reason for a delay."
The official line from Western embassies is that they want to support the elections
but await the specifics of what Cambodia plans before making commitments.
One Cambodian NGO chief believes donors are making a mistake
by not doing enough to spur the process.
"They will wait, wait, wait until the government says 'OK, elections next month,
or in a few months'. How can you do voter registration and education in one, two,
three, four or even five months?"
Donors should start funding voter education and other electoral programs now, he
Tony Kevin responds: "This election is going to be a Cambodian project. The
Cambodian leaders have made that plain to us, and we support that.
"It's really up to the Cambodian leaders how thorough they will be, if you like,
in preparing the electorate.
"I'm not sure that the voters need all that much education. There wasn't that
much education in the UNTAC election, and still there was a big turn out."
How much money - figures of $20-35 million have been mentioned by the Cambodian side
- and how many staff the elections will require is unclear.
But, in an age of diminishing aid budgets and a reluctance to fund something full
of potential to backfire, debates are raging in Phnom Penh embassies about how much
money they should put up.
"Although some international assistance may be provided, such as election monitors,
some US and other foreign officials doubt that the international community will support
a costly, large-scale operation to help conduct the elections," noted the GAO
Says one foreign source: "You don't need to spend huge amounts of money to have
a free and fair election...you don't necessarily need $35 million, unless you want
a state-of-the-art computerized election."
US Ambassador Quinn says: "We had elections in our country a hundred years ago
without all this help. I don't know how they did it, but they did."
According to Tony Kevin, "detailed discussion over what it costs and who pays
what is something that can be left for a little later down the track."
French embassy spokesman Franck Gellet says that France "will react to what
they [Cambodia] will ask us...but our assistance will probably be mainly technical."
Kassie Neou (Cambodian Institute of Human Rights) says 1998 will be the ultimate
success or failure of UNTAC, and foreign donors should "stick with it all the
way through... The international community still has to make another commitment.
Those who can provide financial assistance, please do, those who can provide technical
expertise, please do, those who can send volunteers, please do.
"If anything goes wrong, they should not blame the government, they should blame
Others say it is up to Cambodia's leaders to display a commitment to elections, and
a willingness to seek - and accept - independent help, from abroad and within Cambodia.
"They really have to make up their minds what they want, whether they are going
to do this properly and seriously," says one foreign NGO chief.
As 1993 showed, the potential for strife is huge.
Then, democracy was served to Cambodia on a United Nations plate: millions of dollars
and some 23,000 peace-keepers, electoral observers and administrators.
Still there was violence, from the Khmer Rouge - who refused to participate - but
also, according to UN reports, from government security forces which today remain
under the control of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Funcinpec and other parties
suffered murder, harassment and intimidation.
After Funcinpec won the election, and elements of CPP briefly led a secession of
seven provinces, a deal was forced to share power in a coalition government.
Now, with everyone agreed that there will be no second UNTAC, the memory of 1993
is ominous. More so, given the current stand-off between Funcinpec and CPP.
"I see the elections as a scenario of mess and danger, if the tension of the
two parties remains until then," says one Cambodian intellectual.
Constitutionally, elections have to be held by November 1998. They can be delayed
"for one year at a time", if the King and two-thirds of the National Assembly
agree, in the case of "war or other special circumstances".
Logistically, the elections would likely need to be held by May, before the Rainy
season, at the latest.
The co-Prime Ministers have publicly supported elections in 1998 but preparations
are only just getting off the ground. Commune elections, due next year, are behind
schedule. Electoral laws, a nationality law and a political party law are yet to
Responsibility for organizing both commune and national elections is firmly in the
hands of the Ministry of Interior, which worries many observers.
The US General Accounting Office report said the ministry's work was "not open
to public oversight and participation" and noted that the ministry "played
a role in the violence and intimidation before the 1993 elections."
Some observers praise co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng as a key force pushing the
electoral process, but still fear the elections will be organized strictly from behind
closed government doors.
The ministry - helped by a French government-funded consultant - recently produced
an organizational chart for the commune elections which did little to allay those
The plan leaves all important decisions to a national electoral committee chaired
by Sar Kheng and fellow minister You Hockry, and other committees appointed by them.
NGOs are relegated to the bottom right hand corner of the chart, envisaged as having
no greater role than to support election preparations in districts and communes.
NGOs - 46 of which have formed the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL)
- are unimpressed.
"We have to challenge much of what the French [expert] proposed," says
one Cambodian NGO chief. "We know very well the French mentality of the state
controlling everything, and excluding the civil society. In Cambodia, it's just not
NGOs argue that independent advisers and observers - Cambodian and foreign - are
vital throughout the planning and holding of the elections.
Kassie Neou says Cambodian NGOs are eager to play their part in election preparations,
voter education, registration and poll-watching, while foreign observers would be
crucial to deter violence.
Most important, many NGOs believe, is an independent electoral commission.
Sar Kheng, in a speech in October, pledged such a commission. But there is no plan
to set one up for the commune elections and no indication yet that there will be
one for the national ballot.
Lao Mong Hay, of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, and two other Cambodian "technocrats"
have been appointed to one ministry working group, after what was said to have been
considerable debate within the ministry.
Kassie Neou says COFFEL members fear the concept of a fully independent election
was "too ambitious" for the government.
NGOs would also "love to see" a neutral body to control the military and
police but that also seems "a bit too advanced."
Of vital importance, according to Kassie Neou, is a body of neutral experts to ensure
a "peaceful acceptance" of the election results and adjudicate any disputes.
The potential recipe for conflict over the election result is strengthened by one
ingredient: the Constitutional requirement that there be only one Prime Minister,
providing perhaps the best motivation for Funcinpec and CPP to vie strongly against
Meanwhile, the prospect of an all-out electoral fight - with each party seeking enough
of a majority to rule alone - may be heightened if the current proportional representation
electoral system is abandoned.
Both Prime Ministers have supported a change to a simple majority system, which is
widely seen as tending to favor larger parties who can win with less than a total
majority of votes cast.
Under a simple majority, the candidate in each constituency who gets the most votes
- regardless of whether it's less than 50 per cent of the total votes - wins.
Most observers agree it will be easier for CPP or Funcinpec to get a majority of
National Assembly seats under such a system rather than the more-democratic proportional
But a coalition government is still likely, given the Constitution's requirement
that two-thirds of the National Assembly approve any new government. Observers say
it is unlikely, but still possible, that Funcinpec or CPP could win that many seats
The wildcard will be Sam Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party, if it won enough seats to make
a coalition with Funcinpec - leaving CPP on the outside. But whether KNP could secure
that many votes - or would merely split the anti-CPP vote, opening the way for CPP
to win the election - is debatable.
NGOs appear divided on the wisdom of moving to a simple majority system.
"The proportional system is clearly more democratic," says the head of
one Western NGO. "If the Cambodians now choose the majoritarian system...it's
clearly a step back from what they had during UNTAC, from the development of a democratic
He notes that, theoretically, a new government could be elected with only 35-40 per
cent of the population's total votes - leaving 60-65 per cent of citizens unrepresented.
"It's better to have the opposition in the parliament than in the streets or
the jungle," he says, fearing a minority government will fuel political dissatisfaction.
The comment is echoed by Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, who believes
the pros outweigh the cons of the proportional system.
Kassie Neou disagrees, arguing that the simple majority system would be better understood
by voters and help to ensure the independence of MPs.
Proportional representation - whereby political parties prepare candidate lists and
directly appoint people to fill their allocation of seats in parliament - can poorly
serve voters, he says.
"Currently our National Assembly members are not independent. It looks like
they represent their party more than the people. I don't think this fits the word
Regardless of what the electoral system is, and how free and fair the elections are,
most observers agree that a coalition government - involving the CPP - is the most
"I don't think the time is right for Cambodia to have win and lose, to have
a winner takes all system," says one. "We value peace."