On November 8, the American people will come together to select a new President of the United States, along with thousands of other federal, state, and local officials. This year’s election is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested in our history, with strong views on both sides.
Despite the rhetoric and passion of the election, no matter who wins, the fundamental principles of our democracy will remain intact. The winners will celebrate, the losers will concede, and the decision of the American people will be respected, as it has been for more than two centuries. The candidates and the political parties will put the election behind them. The winners will get on with the business of governing; the losers will start getting ready for the next election.
There is more than one recipe for democracy. What works for the United States may not necessarily work for Cambodia. But in any democracy, political forces must share a basic acceptance that their opponents have a legitimate right to engage in politics. Politicians from all sides may not agree on the issues, or even like each other, but they must accept that their opponents have the right to advocate for their interests, and treat them accordingly.
I have gotten to know many of the leaders of the government and opposition since I returned to Cambodia nine months ago. By and large, they are good and patriotic people trying to do their best for Cambodia. But neither side seems to accept the other as legitimate. Little more than a year after the “Culture of Dialogue” was announced, once again I see little respect or polite discourse in contemporary Cambodian politics. When it comes to accepting the right of your opponent to pursue his interests – the essence of reconciliation – I feel saddened to say that there has been little progress on either side since my previous assignment here in the late 1990s.
If Cambodian democracy is going to endure, as the Cambodian people clearly want, politicians from all sides need to separate the political from the personal. They need to understand that two sides can disagree about the direction of the nation while sharing a love for the country, its citizens, and its institutions. They need, above all, to recognize the good in each other.
There is a fundamental difference between disagreeing with your opponent and considering him or her to be an enemy. Politicians in the United States have radically different points of view on every issue imaginable. But our best politicians – our statesmen and stateswomen – respect their opponents’ right to pursue their interests and compete in elections. They know that calling each other traitors, or challenging each other’s patriotism, cheapen our politics
In all honesty, it has not always been that way. In the early part of our history our politicians often engaged in fistfights and worse, and it took many years of bitter politics for them to realize that this was counter-productive to their interests, and the interests of the nation.
Since arriving in Cambodia as the U.S. Ambassador last September, I have been amazed with the progress that this country has made since the 1990s. The economy is booming, the infrastructure is more developed, the people are healthier and more educated, and civil society is stronger. Cambodia’s youth are optimistic, proud of their country, and eager to participate in shaping its future. Cambodia has overcome many obstacles over the years, but the inability of Cambodia’s political leaders to work with each other for the benefit of the nation continues to prevent this great country from reaching its full potential.
On July 4, we will celebrate the 240th anniversary of the independence of the United States of America. We have been through many ups and downs over the years, but over time our democracy has not just survived but flourished. The work of democracy is never finished, but we are making progress. As a friend of Cambodia, it is my earnest hope that both the government and opposition can reach out to each other in a spirit of patriotism and reconciliation to do the same.