When the smoke cleared after the 1998 national elections, monitoring groups declared the polling had been “reasonably credible,” though far from perfect.
It was what happened after the voting that caused all the trouble.
Members of Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party, the Son Sann Party and other minority parties refused to accept the results of the election, claiming the vote had been rigged.
The Committee for Free and Fair Elections, looking back in 1999 on the 1998 polling, concluded in its final report that monitoring groups had been looking for trouble in the wrong place.
“In various scenarios postulated in advance of the polls, the major concern was whether the ruling party would be willing to concede defeat if it lost the election,” Comfrel wrote. “It appears no one had anticipated the furious protests that would come from the opposition.”
Those protests began almost immediately after initial results were released, causing the National Election Committee to delay announcing the final results for weeks. That led to more outrage, as political leaders accused the NEC of deliberately stalling so the ruling party could steal the elections.
One 1998 foreign election observer said that while there were real problems in a few locations across the country, on the whole the election was fair.
“There may have been some fiddling with vote counts someplace, but there wasn’t very much,” the observer said. “I am relatively sure the delays after the election were due to poor organization, and not to fraud.”
In the weeks after the voting, Comfrel continued monitoring developments and analyzing its observer reports. “Despite loud complaints by the opposition parties alleging electoral fraud, the observer reports did not reveal a systematic pattern of violations,” the 1999 report states.
Comfrel did its own vote count based on data provided by its independent observers across the country. “The results obtained through Comfrel’s parallel vote tabulation were very close to the results announced by the NEC,” the report states.
For months after the July 26 elections, tensions mounted and public demonstrations grew larger and angrier by the day. On Aug 23, a so-called “Democracy Square” sit-in began in front of the National Assembly; three days later the crowd had grown to 6,000.
On Aug 31, 15,000 joined a mass demonstration. That was the day the Cambodia-Vietnam Liberation Monument near the National Assembly took a beating, as students wielding sledgehammers attacked the faces of the soldiers, poured gasoline on the monument and set it ablaze.
The protesters wanted recounts in 800 communes, and also objected to the mathematical formula used to determine how National Assembly seats would be distributed among parties. They claimed the NEC had surreptitiously switched formulas to give the CPP more National Assembly seats.
The 1998 observer said that accusation simply wasn’t true. “A lot of what is [today] common knowledge about that election isn’t true,” he said. “The formula controversy is one [example].”
He said the NEC had sent copies of the new formula to all political parties two months before the 1998 election, but the parties didn’t notice the change. The new formula is one more widely used around the world than the original formula, he said.
But emotions were running high, and few waited for facts before acting. On Sept 7, five weeks after the election, grenades were thrown at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh house at about the same time King Norodom Sihanouk attempted to broker a compromise.
Police and protesters—including monks—clashed all over the city. On Sept 13 pro-CPP demonstrators, many armed with sticks, took to the streets.
Funcinpec eventually joined a coalition government with the CPP, leaving the Sam Rainsy Party as the opposition. The allocation of National Assembly seats was 64 to the CPP, 43 to Funcinpec, and 15 to the Sam Rainsy Party. The deal included the creation of the Senate.
The new assembly was sworn in at Angkor Wat on Sept 24. En route to the ceremony, rockets were fired at Hun Sen’s motorcade, killing one onlooker and injuring three others.
Political analysts worry that Sunday’s commune council elections may provoke scattered violence as local leaders who have been in power for years face the possibility of defeat.
“There may be many more personal disputes among commune leaders,” Funcinpec election chairman Nhiek Bun Chhay said recently. “This is what we fear.”
“[Political disputes] can be solved at the national level, but in some remote areas, many non-governmental organizations and donors and international observers are concerned. Personal vendettas happen in Cambodia. We all know this.”
Comfrel’s report on the 1998 elections blasted the NEC for refusing to deal with opposition complaints, for failing to ensure equal media access for all parties, and for appearing biased in favor of the ruling party, especially at the provincial and commune level.
“It is extremely important that the NEC review its composition with the aid of ensuring its credibility as a neutral body in the eyes of all political parties,” the report recommended.
It also suggested the NEC needed to better resolve complaints; act decisively to stop election-related violence; help all parties get equal media access; educate voters about how democracy works; and better train election observers.