Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wheel Has Come Full Circle

Wheel Has Come Full Circle

Wheel Has Come Full Circle

A main provision of the agreement arising from the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference on

Indochina, required Cambodia to hold elections, under the aegis of an International

Control Commission. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords made the same point, only more so.

Shakespeare's words seem apt: "Th' hast spoken right, t'is true. The wheel is

come full circle."

A couple of points then are of interest today. The original elections, Cambodia's

first under international supervision, were based on the concept of universal suffrage.

As may have been expected, HRH Sihanouk played a central role. The Democratic Party,

then the main opposition, was widely forecast to sweep the board. Sihanouk, at that

time monarch, suddenly abdicated when the Control Commission refused his suggestion

to limit the suffrage and founded the Sangkum (People's Socialist Community). The

former king's party swept the board and retained power until the Lon Nol coup of


History is not supposed to repeat itself, only historians. Whether history has a

surprise in store, only time will tell. Nevertheless, although apprehension and anticipation

mark both periods, it is instructive to look at today's situation and see what it

holds for Cambodia's second bite at the democratic cherry.

Article 6 of the Paris Peace Agreement is the justification. It provides for UNTAC,

on the SNC's behalf and acting for the United Nations, to organize and ensure "free

and fair elections". With a constitution and an internationally recognized government,

as the end result.

Except for creating a "neutral political environment", most of the necessary

steps have been taken. UNTAC launched a massive "white propaganda" exercise

both to tell potential electors that they have basic political rights and explain

the electoral process to all and sundry. Special emphasis was laid on ballot secrecy.

The results are impressive. 4.7 million adults, 97 percent of those eligible, were

registered. Twenty political parties have been encouraged to take the field. Finally,

a massive deployment exercise has been put in place to ensure security for party

offices, polling booths, communications and logistics, to train polling officers,

and access media time to the parties.

So, everything is set for three days of polling from May 23-25 (with 2 extra days

at mobile stations). If all goes according to a plan-now forced to recognize that

only "minimum standards of acceptability can be met"-Cambodians will vote

under the sceptical eyes of the rest of the world. One hundred and twenty members

are to be elected to a specially devised Constituent Assembly.

Thereafter, this body will agree on a new constitution for Cambodia. This critical

process, which has been given a three months timetable will require a two thirds

majority to be passed. Once adopted, the assembly will turn into a National Assembly,

decide the kind of government the country will have, and choose a government from

among its members.

With a new government in place, whose international acceptability has been virtually

guaranteed by the March 8 Security Council Resolution (the first supported by China),

UNTAC's mandate in Cambodia will formally end.

At the practical logistical level, everything needed to be done towards this end

has been done. However, organizing and setting up the wherewithal for elections is

not sufficient in itself. The acid test of this U.S. $2.8 billion exercise is not

so much arriving at a legitimately fairly chosen government, but ensuring that such

a government, chosen democratically, can be seen to govern, effectively, in the first

few months of its life. If the whole UNTAC enterprise, often seen as yardstick for

analogous future peace enhancing activities by the United Nations, is to be a success,

it is the latter point that is the most important.

Democracy needs to be nurtured otherwise, once the process has been completed, it

will be "business as usual" in Cambodia.

What are the crucial ingredients which underpin democracy?

Several factors have been put forward as essential. Level of economic development,

openness of society and extent of the rule of law relative to the degree of social

strife, urbanism and the range of property ownership, and the amplitude of educational

literacy, are those most often cited. On the side of elections, which should obviously

be held in a peaceful environment, two points are paramount: the potential electorate

must perceive the elections to be "fair" i.e. no vote-buying or intimidation,

and secret.

A relevant side issue, which might affect attitudes towards the final result, is

the system to be followed, i.e. single winner constituency or proportional representation.

How does Cambodia measure up? To take the points one by one. Cambodia's level of

development is amongst the lowest of the low. What is more, after the savage slash

in the purchasing power of the riel in March and the simultaneous four-fold jump

in the price of rice, every single Cambodian family without access to dollars or

baht, has seen their already precarious living standard worsen. The economic situation,

more imbalanced than before UNTAC arrived, is hardly conducive to promoting the concept

of freedom of choice both in politics and economics.

This reinforces my previous view that UNTAC, from the beginning, should have paid

far more attention to the so-called "Reconstruction phase". After all,

for many thinking Asians, Gorbachev's downfall simply proved the disaster of not

pushing political liberalization pari passu with economic development.

But, as many recent democratic elections in Africa and Central America have shown,

the level of economic development is not a determining factor. In Cambodia, public

dissatisfaction with prolonged deeper economic hardship, is what may prove decisive.

Openness. The country is more open than in the recent past. But concepts such as

freedoms of speech and the right of assembly for political purposes, remain far off

ideals for most of Phnom Penh's intelligentsia as the high rate of killings, last

March, more than proved. Likewise, the rule of law, despite the passage of a new

criminal code, and the presence of 3,500 CIVPOL personnel, remains a cruel joke for

anyone who seeks protection against armed robbery or justice in a land dispute. The

degree of social strife has widened, while public security is perceived to have broken

down. Again, although a peaceful environment is a highly desirable adjunct, recent

examples of democratic elections in other parts of the developing world have demonstrated

that its partial absence is not an invalidating factor.

Urbanism's significance for the vast majority of people only comes from the fact

that practically all recent upsurge in wealth has been centered in the cities, overwhelmingly

Phnom Penh. Nevertheless, although the business community is largely for the SOC,

in electoral terms, the estimated number of voters in the capital is only eight percent

of the country's total and below, in terms of numbers, potential rural voters in

Kompong Cham and Prey Veng provinces.

While literacy is remarkably high, there are two off-setting features. The traditional

subservience of women-today's dominant economic group-to male decision-making for

matters outside the home, and long-standing peasant respect for their last "God-King";

a determining factor in all Cambodia's previous elections.

What then, is critical? A recent seminal work on Italy's experience since 1948 shows

that it is "Civicness". Defined as " patterns of social co-operation

based on tolerance, trust and widespread norms of active citizen participation".

Where this exists, democracy has the best chance of putting down deep roots; where

it does not, chances are fairly slim.

Cambodia's hierarchical society with a long-standing tradition of patron-client politics

and favor-seeking is somewhat antithetical to this. The UNTAC choice of proportional

representation, while against Cambodian electoral practice of single winner constituencies,

may attenuate this if every faction is able to gain some share of the political spoils.

But, what it virtually guarantees in the Cambodian situation, is a non-majority winner

with smaller parties holding the balance. Cambodia thus faces the possibility of

having to agree on a coalition government of whatever political complexion with the

Khmer Rouge-the electoral "refuse-niks" waiting in the wings. In such a

case, individuals, rather than the party programs the people voted for, will be the

major factor.

Assuming that the main opposition parties don't pull out and the election goes ahead,

there are three possible outcomes. That one party wins-virtually impossible with

proportional representation. That the two main parties win sufficient seats to oblige

power-sharing and accommodation with the others. Or, the likelihood of open warfare

with the KR prompting Prince Sihanouk to resurrect his idea of a government of National

Unity-which would include portfolios for KR representatives.

Although the latter has been rejected by SOC, it still seems the most likely outcome.

At first glance, this makes a mockery of the whole UNTAC-funded process: a faction

that has done everything to prevent the peace accords from operating, nevertheless

ends up with important ministerial positions.

While true, this is too narrow a view. There are three considerations. The Paris

treaty emphasizes that Cambodians must be responsible for their own destiny. Since

colonial days, Cambodia has always been in a state of tutelage, never having a balanced

budget, and continuously dependent on following outside advice, or else. Once elections

are over, it will be up to them to decide and accept the consequences.

Whatever the outcome, Cambodia will have undergone its fairest election. It will

also have been put back on the democratic learning curve; an invaluable spin-off

from all UNTAC's costly efforts.

Finally, and probably most important, a vast number of Cambodians will have been

exposed to democratic election concepts and, especially, their underlying meaning.

A generation, still with more than one foot in a totalitarian tradition, will have

been exposed to a different way of governing their society. Democracy does not take

root over night-not with Cambodia's background. Nevertheless, a dynamic has been

set in motion and a large number of Cambodians have become committed to new ways.

This, rather than a "dream-team" election result, may prove UNTAC's greatest

lasting legacy to Cambodia's future.


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