Lately there have been moves to hold a presidential election in Cambodia prior the
election of a constituent assembly.
Proponents of this idea see it as a way out of the present impasse over the implementation
of the Paris peace accords, an impasse which has resulted from the Khmer Rouge's
refusal to abide by Phase II of that peace plan on the grounds that the Supreme National
Council (SNC) has not been performing the role provided for in the accords.
However, a body of opinion does not see a presidential election as a solution. Such
people view it as unacceptable since it was not provided for in the Paris agreements.
Suppose that the Paris accords could legally be amended to accommodate the presidential
election. Would it provide a solution to the present impasse? Or might it not complicate
the implementation of the Paris peace accords and destroy them in the end? Could
the cure not kill the patient? Who would pay for such a miscalculation? This article
attempts to explain some possible scenarios and answer these questions.
Would a presidential election be a democratic election?
All parties have agreed to a multi-party democracy for Cambodia. Elections through
which the Cambodian people could exercise their right to self determination-in particular,
to choose their leader-should be warmly welcomed and supported as they are part and
parcel of that democracy.
In the present Cambodian context, however, proponents of the presidential election
may have in mind only one candidate; that is, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, currently
Head of State and President of the Supreme National Council (SNC) of Cambodia.
Would this election be simply a plebiscite for one candidate, denying other Cambodians
their right to present themselves as presidential candidates? If so, would that famous
multi-party democracy be simply a farce to fool the Cambodian people who are currently
being taught democratic principles and human rights?
A presidential election, in conformity with multi-party democracy, must be a democratic,
free and fair election, in which all eligible Cambodians could stand as candidates
and vote. There must also be a neutral political environment conducive to such an
election. In such an environment it might be too early to assume that Prince Sihanouk
would be the only unchallengeable candidate.
Would the incumbent head of state win with enhanced credibility
Up to now many have believed that Prince Sihanouk is Cambodia's most popular leader.
According to this point of view, the Prince enjoys the trust of all Cambodians and
is the worthy, unchallengeable Head of State and SNC President. He would win a cut-and-dried
victory in any election. This belief is not unfounded, judging by the size of the
crowds Prince Sihanouk has been addressing around the country and from "opinion
polls." Such a development would then provide both him and the Cambodian democratic
process with added legitimacy.
However, thus far Prince Sihanouk has enjoyed all the spotlight and has been praised
by all, even hypocritically. No one has dared to come out yet and put forward his
or her ideas on the governance of the country and challenge Prince Sihanouk.
When and if there is a neutral environ ment, adequate security
of expression, and the opportune moment, there could well be other Cambodians who
might stand for election as president-for reasons of self publicity, for the sake
of multi-party democracy, or genuinely with a vision and a political program for
Unexpected circumstances such as these should be allowed for and the participation
of more candidates should be encouraged and supported by all believers in multi-party
democracy and human rights.
During election campaigns, all candidates invariably try to unearth and publicly
expose the weaknesses of their opponents. Many potential candidates cannot be sure
that they would gain credibility, respect, and authority in that election, since
they do have their respective weaknesses-particularly those who have been at the
helm of the state in the past.
In a competitive race for president, one scenario might be that the incumbent Head
of State-for whom many Cambodians and foreign dignitaries have great respect and
on whom many have pinned their hopes-emerges the winner with enhanced stature and
But if the unexpected is allowed for, worse scenarios are possible: the election
could open a Pandora's box of grievances and get out of hand; the incumbent Head
of State might lose the election; he might quit; etc.
In all these scenarios it is not certain that the cure (the presidential election)
will in any way be better than the disease (the impasse over the implementation of
the peace plan). But what is patently certain, as has been the case thus far, is
that it is the Cambodian people themselves who will pay with their lives and limbs
for any miscalculation.
The proponents of the presidential election as the solution to the present impasse
may be reminded of the following words of Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you under
the bowls of Christ, think you might be mistaken."
- M.H. Lao is a member of the London-based Center for Research into Communist