On what marked the fifth anniversary of the UN-sponsored elections, policy makers grappled last weekend with such thorny ’98 campaign issues as voter intimidation and media access.
By the end of the two-day seminar at the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana in Phnom Penh, discussions had become heated at times, with some attendees questioning whether the scheduled July 26 elections could possibly be free, fair—and respected.
“Elections are never easy,” consoled Tan Cheng Bock, a Singaporean lawmaker. “There will be conflict, accusations. But this is what you want in a democracy.”
Indeed, the seminar, sponsored by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German foundation, sparked some of the debate one would hope for in a country organizing its own elections for the first time since 1955.
But Pok Marina, former undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, said this year’s elections don’t feel substantially different from the UN-supervised elections of May 1993—except for the amount of money and a less-enthusiastic populace.
“The international community would like to see it as a Cambodian election, but [instead] you always hear, ‘free, fair and credible,’” she said.
One doesn’t hear that phrase, Pok Marina argued, in countries conducting democratic elections on their own. So “in wording, we already have a spirit which cannot be seen as pure Cambodian.”
While Pok Marina was alone in expressing that particular sentiment, others agreed that the international community is influencing the political atmosphere.
Yes, there’s nowhere near $2 billion being spent this time around. And yes, the UN role has been downgraded significantly from poll supervisor to the coordinator of a small number of observers.
But how the elections are deemed, participants agreed, will be key to Cambodia’s entry into Asean, and for garnering international aid in the future.
“A successful election is a defining condition of Cambodia’s entry into Asean,” declared National Assembly Secretary-General Than Sina in his keynote address.
Last year’s entry into Asean was postponed after the factional fighting in July. International aid also was cut, but still accounts for more than 40 percent of the nation’s budget.
Chhang Song, an adviser to the National Assembly, used the international scrutiny to deflect concerns that the election results might not be accepted if Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP loses.
“If Hun Sen loses, he has said that he will go away,” Chhang Song said. “I think it will be very difficult for people who lose who have power not to relinquish the power because the international community will censor that and Cambodia will be isolated [once again].”
Chhang Song didn’t mention that despite losing in 1993, Hun Sen brokered a power-sharing arrangement with the winner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Much of the weekend workshop dealt with the challenge of the current elections.
Than Sina identified what he characterized as a “crippling” obstacle to democracy: The factionalization of political parties.
“A nation of less than 5 million eligible voters sporting a roster of over 40 political parties is a sad testament to that fact,” he said in his keynote. “We must start mapping out our common ground and framing ideas within the national interest rather than indulging in self-aggrandizing behavior and committing character assassinations on those who should be our colleagues.”
Raoul Jennar, a political analyst, agreed party fragmentation is an obstacle to a true democracy. And he noted that July’s violent street battles between forces loyal to Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh “left a climate of fear which is not the most appropriate for free and fair election[s].”
But Jennar also noted some positive aspects to this year’s campaign: The country may be at its lowest level of military activity since 1965, and participants will include those who didn’t vote in 1993, such as residents in the former Khmer Rouge strongholds of Pailin and Phnom Malai. In that respect, it’s more of a nationwide vote.
First, however, is voter registration, and many pointed out flaws in a process that started just last week.
Kassie Neou, vice-chairman of the National Election Committee, openly acknowledged the chaotic start, and others talked about vote buying, intimidation and flat-out rejection of members of opposition parties.
It was strongly hinted that the percentage of eligible Cambodians who register may in part determine whether the National United Front, which includes Ranariddh’s Funcinpec party, ultimately boycotts the election.
Equal access to the media also remains a sticking point for political parties: TV and radio remain mostly pro-CPP.
But several lawmakers from Asean countries reminded conference attendees that one can’t expect Cambodia to move smoothly into democracy overnight.
Said Tan Cheng Bock, the Singaporean parliamentarian: “You have to realize elections are not an end to itself, but a means to improving lives and furthering national interests. What happens after the election is perhaps more important.”