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,
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
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.