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
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.