Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Questioning the elections panacea

Questioning the elections panacea

Questioning the elections panacea

Elections '98: the only certain result is that they will fail - à la 1993

- to produce democracy, contends David Ashley, who urges a broader approach to Cambodia's

democratic crisis.

Fareed Zakaria's excellent "Democracies That Take Liberties" (New York

Times, November 2, 1997) argues that elections, when held without the constraints

of "constitutional liberalism", are self-defeating and potentially dangerous:

"The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term;

it is a process in which an election is only one step".

Where better for the West to start anew with this more sophisticated attitude towards

democracy than in Cambodia. Cambodia, after all, was the shining example of the previous

model. The 1993 elections, organized by the United Nations at great cost in lives

and money, were supposed to usher in a new era of peace, reconciliation and democracy.

They didn't. Competitive elections between armed adversaries and national reconciliation

proved to be incompatible partners, and the patched-up power-sharing arrangement

eventually collapsed in violence. At the best of times, Cambodia was only ever a

semi-democracy: the basic elements of constitutional liberalism - rule of law, separation

of powers, human rights - were absent before those elections and remained still-born

in the four years after. Now, it's not a democracy at all: Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen ensured that in July when he used military force to overthrow his co-premier,

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of the party that won those 1993 elections.

One might have imagined, given this unfortunate experience, that the international

community would have had a few second thoughts about elections as the way to resolve

the Cambodian conflict. But no. Both Western and Asian nations look to parliamentary

elections, promised by Hun Sen for May 1998, as the way forward. So long as certain

minimum conditions are met (and several countries aren't too bothered about these

either), then they will provide money and monitors and hope that this time things

will work out. Either they honestly believe such a strategy will succeed - in which

case they've learned nothing from the previous elections in Cambodia and in similarly

conflict-torn countries - or they know it won't but have neither the patience nor

imagination to work out an alternative strategy that might.

The 1998 elections in Cambodia as presently envisaged will fail, but the nature of

the failure can take one of two forms. In the first scenario, that promoted by the

international community, the elections are minimally democratic but fail because

they try to decide too much. That is to say, the electoral process seeks to find

a winner between two warring sides, who meanwhile retain their arms, territory and

enmities fully intact. Because it's a winner-take-all scenario - electoral victory

bringing political, economic, judicial, bureaucratic and military power unconstrained

by the institutions or traditions of constitutional liberalism - neither side will

agree to lose. After all, given how powerless opponents have been treated in Cambodia

since time immemorial, can you blame them? So, as in 1993, elections will, at best,

result in an unstable coalition between unreconciled adversaries and, at worst, result

in immediate fighting. The stakes for both sides, then and now, are too high for

such elections to work.

In the second scenario, by contrast, the elections fail because they decide too little.

In this scenario, the one envisaged by Hun Sen when he staged his coup, the international

community can have its precious elections but all the important decisions have already

been made. Serious opposition parties and figures will be excluded and the resulting

parliament will, anyway, have no power to influence anything that matters. Who controls

the State - the fundamental question lying behind the Cambodian conflict - will have

been pre-determined by Hun Sen himself through the use and threat of force. This

second kind of election, à la Vietnam or Indonesia, may proceed peacefully

but it won't be democratic nor resolve the fundamental political conflict. Giving

up liberal democracy in favor of dictatorship may - as countries like Canada and

France appear to hope - create a degree of stability, provided that the opposition

agree to give up or be killed. But, given Hun Sen's personality and the splits within

his own party, even this stability is likely to prove very short-lived.

So what do we do? If we've no stomach for a long-term commitment to promote peace

and liberal democracy in Cambodia, or decide that it is an internal affair, then

we should say so and give up now, consigning Cambodia to the diplomatic dustbin along

with the likes of Afghanistan. Long-term civil conflicts are not amenable to a quick

fix: having well-meaning policies without the political will to execute them tends

to be worse than having no policies at all.

In the unlikely event that we are in for the long haul, then the aim must be to facilitate

free and fair elections that don't matter too much. To do so, we have to promote

ways of deciding the most important issues, and thus resolving the basic causes of

conflict, through other means than just giving one side or other carte blanche to

rule. Since State power is both the end and the means of the struggle, this requires

finding ways - prior to and subequent to elections - to constrain the freedom of

the government-of-the-day to dominate State and society. It means, in other words,

strengthening "constitutional liberalism". And as certain players have

and will continue to use violence to obtain power, this policy also requires isolating

those actors who are simply not prepared to play the democratic game.

There are various ways in which such a strategy could be implemented. I'll just suggest

three initiatives. The first is to set up an international tribunal on Cambodia.

The crimes against humanity perpetrated there for over 20 years demand an international

response. To leave it up to the domestic courts is to place an unsustainable burden

on a terribly weak and politicized judicial system. In practice, the issue of how

to deal with some of the worst abuses of the 20th Century thus becomes just another

part of the political horse-trading; it also means that those responsible for the

abuses continue to exercise power and continue to commit abuses with impunity. This

is both wrong and dangerous. Only a properly-resourced international tribunal, based

in Phnom Penh and mandated to deal with past and ongoing abuses, can begin to seriously

tackle these crimes, punish the perpetrators and act as a deterrent to future outrages.

Secondly, rather than being steam-rolled into May 1998 elections, we have to first

promote substantive negotiations between all political actors on reforming the Cambodian

State. This is essential because without a politically impartial and properly paid

army, bureaucracy and judiciary, you're simply not going to have democracy or the

rule of law. And nor is this a side-issue which can wait until after the elections.

Without a politically impartial structure to organize the elections and an independent

tribunal to judge electorally-related disputes, there can't be free and fair elections.

And no elected government, anxious to reward its followers, will willingly relinquish

its powers of patronage and control over the State apparatus and the security forces.

The issues of reform, retrenchment and demobilization have to be taken out of the

electoral political arena and resolved.

Thirdly, in addition to the strengthening and depoliticization of the State apparatus,

the elections - when they eventually can be organized, and it certainly won't be

in May - have to be constitutionally structured so that the winning party is not

all-powerful. This could be done by various methods such as setting up a second parliamentary

chamber, elected through a different method; starting with local elections which

would democratize local authorities and also serve as a practical experiment in election-organizing;

setting term-limits for prime ministers; giving the National Assembly rather than

the government the power to appoint senior military and bureaucratic officials.

These suggestions are not exhaustive and nor do they constitute a magic solution:

any diplomatic initiative now is at least six months too late. The tribunal will

take time and, as in Bosnia, will reinforce the intransigence of those indicted.

Negotiations on reform will be very difficult given the severe imbalance of power

between the two sides. Hun Sen, anxious to protect his control over the State, will

oppose the talks or will use them as an excuse to hang on to power indefinitely.

Concerted international pressure will be required to push forward the discussions,

including a deadline for agreement and a promise to finance reasonable reforms. Subsequent

elections will still require intensive monitoring so they are truly free and fair.

But at least this approach may succeed, to paraphrase Fareed Zakaria, in making democracy

safe for Cambodia and Cambodia safe for democracy.

- David Ashley is a long-time observer of Cambodia and was, until September, working

for the UN in Phnom Penh.


  • NY sisters inspired by Khmer heritage

    Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Cambodian-American sisters Edo and Eyen Chorm have always felt a deep affinity for their Cambodian heritage and roots. When the pair launched their own EdoEyen namesake jewellery brand in June, 2020, they leaned heavily into designs inspired by ancient Khmer

  • Schools drawn into Manet degree row

    Prime Minister Hun Sen stepped into the Hun Manet-Sam Rainsy war of words over the validity of Manet’s degree from the US Military Academy at West Point, set off by Rainsy’s claims that Manet had received a “second-class degree” or “honorary degree”. Hun

  • Cambodia records first Omicron community case

    The Ministry of Health on January 9 reported 30 new Covid-19 cases, 29 of which were imported and all were confirmed to be the Omicron variant. The ministry also reported 11 recoveries and no new deaths. Earlier on January 9, the ministry also announced that it had detected the Kingdom's

  • The effects of the USD interest rate hike on Cambodian economy

    Experts weigh in on the effect of a potential interest rate expansion by the US Federal Reserve on a highly dollarised Cambodia Anticipation of the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in March is putting developing economies on edge, a recent blog post by

  • PM eyes Myanmar peace troika

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN member states establish a tripartite committee or diplomatic troika consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar. The premier also requested that Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa

  • NagaWorld protest part of ‘conspiracy’

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Court and police held a joint-press conference on January 4 to clarify details concerning the arrest of nine former employees of the integrated resort NagaWorld and the charges brought against them, saying that the authorities had clear grounds for taking legal action.