In Post-Election Political Dispute, Lessons Must Be Learned

The recent CPP and CNRP’s approach towards resolving Cambodia’s month-long post-election political im­passe through both open and behind-the-scenes negotiations has brought a new round of mixed reactions among Cam­bodian people, in particular those who are voters.

The two conflicting parties must have reached a point of “mutually hurting stalemate” or in other word a “ripeness” for solution of their conflict. They may, sooner or later, iron out their antagonistic differences and strike a peaceful political deal for the sake of the nation, rather than resorting to any acts of violence or other means of endless confrontations and escalation of conflict, which could once again eventually plunge the country into bloodshed.

Yet, a lack of willingness to negotiate or hold a dialogue in good faith, exclusiveness of third party from the process, the failure to properly address the root causes of the conflict or learn from past lessons or mistakes, and the focus on individual party interest rather than collective interests of the nation, to mention a few, have hindered such negotiation from progressing at its full pace and, in return, landed it on a bumpy road that could jeopardize any prospects of a successful and durable political deal.

Point of No Return

Like it or not, any feasible political solution can only be attained provided that the two sides employ a win-win approach so as to save their faces from such irreversible status quo. So far, both conflicting parties have arrived at a point of no return. Neither could the CPP dissolve the government and parliament they established, nor could the CNRP join hands with the former by making concessions through accepting the election results and ending their boycott in order to render legitimacy to the CPP-unilaterally-led assembly and government—without honoring promises they had made with their supporters in bringing leadership changes to the nation and calling for a fresh reelection or, at most, the standing down of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

All in all, in order to avoid and prevent such similar post-election conflicts from ever reoccurring, the two conflicting parties should not hastily make a deal simply by showing off their conciliatory gentlemen’s gestures using a pretext of the Khmer New Year as their so-called ‘Gifts’ to the Cambodian citizens to conceal or cover up their hidden agenda of power-sharing.

Instead, by upholding commitments to placing utmost interests of the nation and Cambodian population at large at the core of their negotiating principles, they should painstakingly focus and debate, through inputs from various stakeholders, on how to best deal with the root causes of the present and any possible future election-related conflicts. For instance, issues pertaining to the assurance with zero tolerance in a long-run—not just a tentative one—of independence, impartiality, integrity, transparency, efficiency, professionalism and service-mindedness of the country’s National Election Committee (NEC), voting system, as well as other electoral conflict resolution mechanisms including the roles of the Constitutional Council of Cambodia (CCC), suffrage for Cambodian nationals living overseas, and the openness of the mass media should be placed at the forefront for serious and thorough consideration.

Any proposed political agreement for NEC reform that placed only members from both political parties winning seats at the Na­tional Assembly into the composition of the newly reformed NEC leadership, exclusiveness of members from civil society organizations or representatives of the U.N. would only—due to the following grounds—serve as a tentative, shortsighted and visionless avenue for resolving the present conflict. It would, however, have an adverse effect and invite more electoral frauds in the future.

First, the two parties do not represent the whole Cambodian citizenry from all walks of life. Although they are representatives of the majority, there are those who consider themselves independents, abstainers, or aliens, etc., who could serve perfectly well as election administrators in this context.

Second, this similar mechanism was also introduced and em­ployed when the CCC and NEC were first established in 1998; and lessons showed that both the CCC and NEC failed to maintain their credibility of being independent and neutral over time when it happened that such a formula leaves a loophole for those parties winning assembly seats to one day easily conspire or collude to work together behind the scenes. Who knows what will happen next as new opposition parties with tendencies against the present two leading parties may be established and likewise demand the reshuffling of the NEC management due to their similar claim of discreditable independence or impartiality of such election management body? Who knows if the CNRP may one day be subject to division or infiltration by, or become a puppet of the CPP?

Third and finally, such a conciliatory stance without imposing any harsh punishment, convictions or fines against those criminal parties committing electoral frauds apparently will encourage more vote riggings in the future and, as a result, the whole country and its citizens could suffer from a endless circle of post-election political stalemate.

Cambodia’s Past

Over the past 20 years, Cambodia has gone through ample negative experiences and sour political lessons with regard to processes of seeking political solutions that just appeared to have been working tentatively but failed to prevent repeated bloodshed or function in the long-run for the sake of sustainability and normalization of the state institutions.

One may still remember clearly that in 1993, an unprecedented power-sharing formula of co-prime ministership was initiated by the late King Norodom Si­hanouk to avert bloodshed when the CPP then refused to acknowledge its stunning defeat in the general elections, held under the auspices of the U.N., and threatened to secede several eastern provinces of the country. Awk­wardly, the formula did work from the beginning, but failed to sustain and avert bloodshed in the end as no less than four abortive coup attempts were made and one final coup d’etat was staged between the then CPP-and Funcinpec-led factions during which time hundreds of people were injured and killed.

Such fragility and uncertainty of democratic practices in Cambodia persisted when the present NEC and CCC were first established by the then CPP- and Funcinpec-controlled National Assembly in 1998 to prepare for the second legislature’s general elections. Since then, from each general elections to the next, various power-sharing formulas were introduced and tailored to tackle each specific post-election political stalemate including an odd creation in July 2004 of a controversial Addendum to the Constitution, paving the way for a package vote for establishment of the National Assembly and Royal Government concurrently to avoid any breach of trust among coalition party deputies and to ensure the normal functioning of the state institutions. The latest round of talks seeking a formula to end possible post-election crisis was in 2006 when the then Sam Rainsy Party and the CPP showed rare cooperation to amend the Constitution from a required two-third majority to a simple majority of 50 percent plus one formula for formation of a new government. Although this latest formula appears not to pose any questions, issues now encircle the credibility of NEC and CCC.

The country has been losing tremendous time, synergy and blood focusing again and again on an apparently endless circle of post-election crises. And as time passes by, another offspring of such crisis is looming on the horizon. Is it a fault of democracy by nature? How many times more do we have to settle such similar crisis? Can our present politicians guarantee to the nation that the deal they are about to strike will definitely avert a similar crisis in the future? Do our politicians ever feel any shame, embarrassment or remorse for what they have done, are doing now and will do in the future?

Stop cheating your own race and ancestors. Enough is enough. Any short-term political solution that lacks long-term visionary perspectives for the nation will just be an invitation for more crises to come in the future. Such practice, if left unchallenged, will undoubtedly corrode public confidence in democracy. Cambodian people may welcome any well-balanced composition of NEC and CCC. Although the two institutions have a decisive role in the life and death of the nation, no initiative has been presented that would see both in­stitutions also be directly elected by the people through an open list proportional representation system. When nothing is certain, everything is possible.

Sovannarith Keo is an independent researcher studying Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

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