In 1993, after the most expensive UN intervention in history, Cambodia’s people went to the polls and voted for change in their government and in their lives. The UN-administered elections were hailed at the time as an example of how the international community could help “transplant” democracy in a troubled country like Cambodia.
Five years, a failed coalition and a violent power-shift later, the pre-Untac rulers of Cambodia are back in the driver’s seat and the country is once again in crisis. Elections are again being viewed by the government, political factions and the international community as a way to resolve it.
This time, though, the UN is not running the elections. Cambodians are organizing the polls themselves.
At stake, some say, is no less than the future of democracy in Cambodia—not to mention who will be leading the country for the next five years.
“The elections, if free and fair and endorsed by the international community, would put an end to the political crisis and political uncertainty,” Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hay said. “Those who are the election winners will be the legitimate rulers of Cambodia in the eyes of the international community.”
In short, this year’s elections are expected to achieve exactly what the 1993 polls were supposed to: a legitimate government that sets Cambodia on the road to democracy.
However, Kek Galabru, a human rights advocate and political observer, who is the daughter of two longtime Cambodian government officials, warned that legitimacy and democracy are not necessarily the same thing.
“The one who wins the election will certainly strengthen his power and get legitimacy,” she said. “But it does not necessarily mean that this party in power will bring democracy and the rule of law to Cambodia.”
Opposition parties and some human rights advocates have already said that the election results are being manipulated by an intimidation campaign of the Cambodian People’s Party, the de facto ruling party. They say the polls will serve only to legitimize a government that came to power illegally.
And there are still fears of renewed fighting after the elections, no matter who wins. Cambodia has not seen a peaceful transfer of power in nearly 30 years.
The country seemed to have taken halting steps in the direction of democracy in 1993 elections.
But the explosion of violence last year, which left the CPP half of the coalition government in control, veered the country back in the other direction.
“Cambodia is not yet a full-blooded democracy. It is still evolving in that direction,” Lakhan Mehrotra, the representative in Cambodia of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said Thursday. “In recent times, it had a democratic government for only three years, followed by the setback of war last year.”
The individual stakes are high for all involved in the elections.
The ruling CPP-led government is hoping to retain power and gain legitimacy through the elections and a restoration of foreign aid that was lost after last July’s violence.
Winning a plurality in the parliament is especially important for the party that has, in essence, ruled since 1979. Unlike the aftermath of the 1993 elections, if the CPP fails to win a plurality this time, it would be difficult—though certainly not unprecedented—for it to use force to retain power, according to Kao Kim Hourn of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“I would hope history does not repeat itself in such a case because if it does, we might as well follow the Myanmar model,” Kao Kim Hourn said. Myanmar, or Burma, has lost almost all foreign aid since its military junta annulled the results of a 1990 election won by the opposition.
The stakes are also high for 1993 election winner Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the deposed first prime minister and Funcinpec president. He and his opposition allies insist last year’s ouster of the prince was a coup d’etat staged by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, and they are hoping to regain power in the election. At the very least, they hope to establish an opposition that will be allowed to dissent without being threatened.
Perhaps it is the Cambodian people—who presumably decide the elections’ outcome —who have the most at stake. In the past 25 years, they have fallen victim to Khmer Rouge atrocities, Vietnamese occupation, famine, poverty and civil war. In most cases, they have been powerless.
That was what was supposed to change with the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the subsequent UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The UN launched a massive education campaign on democracy and human rights as part of its 18-month, $1.8 billion mission. During the 1993 campaign, Radio Untac urged people to vote without fear of intimidation or retribution.
“The UN was like a god that came from the sky to help Cambodians set up peace and democracy,” Kek Galabru said.
Cambodia scholar William Shawcross described the 18-month Untac mission as having far-reaching effects on the Cambodian people.
“A political spring emerged in Phnom Penh where, for the first time, free discussion and debate were encouraged. Several Cambodian human rights groups were formed, recruiting hundreds of thousands of members,” Shawcross wrote in “Cambodia’s New Deal.’
The people appeared to embrace the idea of free elections wholeheartedly, showing up in droves to vote May 23, 1993. In the end, nearly 90 percent of the registered voters cast ballots, despite fear of attacks from the Khmer Rouge and an intimidation campaign by the CPP.
Those who witnessed the elections say the one thing they remember most is the smiles of the people. “They put all their trust in those 1993 elections despite a climate of violence and despite that some political partisans were killed,” Kek Galabru said. “They dreamed of change and they trusted [the elections] because of the UN.”
The election winner, Funcinpec, was forced to share power with its longtime battlefield enemy the CPP, but that fact did not dampen the sense of achievement. The UN declared Cambodia one of its greatest successes. Cambodia seemed at last to be on the road to democracy.
That analysis came under fire four years later when the shaky coalition government exploded in factional fighting between the CPP and Funcinpec factions of the now-integrated army. Whether it was a calculated CPP power grab or the inevitable result of mistrust and maneuvering on both sides is still under dispute. Whichever, Cambodia was once again in crisis. Untac suddenly did not seem so much a success.
Kek Galabru said that many Cambodians have told her they feel disillusioned now. But she said the UN is not blame, Cambodia’s leaders are. “The UN organized elections for us, sent us a lot of money. The UN gave us a heritage and we destroyed the heritage with the climate of violence and civil war.”
Still, Cambodia today is better in many ways from the pre-Untac days.
“This country has been opened up so much already, mostly since 1993,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “We have a lot of grassroots NGOs combined with private sector growth.
The marginalization of the Khmer Rouge—just a few years ago a formidable force—is another positive development, almost everyone agrees.
And if the country can manage to pull off elections on its own with a minimum of violence and cheating, one with a peaceful transfer of power, it will be a watermark achievement, Kao Kim Hourn said. ”This election is another step forward if we do it right and manage it in a fair manner.”
That, though, is one of the main controversies about the elections. Opposition parties are already complaining that the elections will not be free and fair. They claim that with the UN playing the minor role of coordinating international monitors instead of enforcing elections rules as it did in 1993, the CPP is working to manipulate the vote. Some are convinced that the party, bent on holding onto power while gaining the international recognition a legitimate election victory would bring, is running a campaign of intimidation aimed at convincing voters their ballot will not be secret.
CPP leaders have denied any such campaign, saying opposition politicians who know they cannot win are forging evidence of intimidation tactics so they can refuse to recognize the results.
But even if some are trying to convince people that without the UN, their vote is not secret, it remains to be seen if that tactic will work.
Several voters who reported receiving gifts and putting their thumbprints on CPP membership contracts have said they feel confident their vote will not be known to authorities. They said they felt pressured by local CPP officials to pledge public support for the party, but that they will make their own choice on July 26. They know from the last elections that their votes are secret, they said.
And in the end, that may be the UN’s most lasting heritage: a hope for democracy and knowledge of how it should work, according to Chea Vannath, acting president of the Center for Social Development.
“The greatest legacy of Untac was to give confidence back to the Cambodian people that they are the ones that make their own future and the future of the country. They are the ones that have the power to change the country,” Chea Vannath said.
She said the electoral process so far is flawed, but that “the practice, the exercise, is good for Cambodia.
“It’s a very good exercise for the Cambodian people to keep doing it,” she said. “Maybe we won’t see results for this elections but maybe the next stage we can get where everybody will be comfortable with the democratic process.”