UNTAC Legacy Questioned Ahead of Election

Cambodia’s fifth national election in July is likely to be the least fair in the 20 years since the U.N. organized the historic 1993 elections, which were designed to usher in a multiparty democracy after years of communist rule and civil war, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) said on Wednesday.

“This is the start of the least fair elections,” Comfrel executive director Koul Panha said.

“If you compare it to 2008 or 2003 or during UNTAC time, UNTAC time was much better in terms of fairness; much, much better than this,” Mr. Panha said, referring to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which administered Cambodia from 1992 to 1993.

“Now, everything is controlled by the ruling party in terms of mil­itary, police, media—that’s a concern—and the new problem is the leader of the opposition not being able to participate in these elections,” he said.

“And also going into the future, we don’t know what will happen over the next coming five years.”

According to its annual report titled Democracy, Elections and Reform in Cambodia, which Comfrel released on Monday, democratic reform deteriorated so much over the past year that “Cambodia’s political system is in an increasingly fragile state of democracy.”

The political playing field continues to be far from level, and the government’s National Election Committee (NEC) continues to reject the majority of recommendations put to it by independent election monitoring groups, Comfrel said.

This was not what was envisioned 20 years ago when, in May 1993, as decided in the Paris Peace Agreements, the U.N. invested billions to disarm Cambodia’s warring political factions, re­patriate some 300,000 Cambodian refugees from Thai border camps and organize the country’s first national elections in decades.

To a large extent, UNTAC did all three. But the electoral climate two decades on falls far short of what was hoped for in 1993 in terms of a vibrant, participatory democracy.

“It doesn’t show a multiparty system,” Mr. Panha said of the current political landscape. “It should be about the substantial engagement of [lawmakers]…. It’s about how the parties play a role in politics and how they influence decision making.”

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the legacy of UNTAC was a series of missed opportunities that saw Cambodia segue from communism to neopatrimonialism, where a ruling elite uses state resources to build loyalty and solidify its own economic and political powerbase.

“With regard to the UNTAC legacy, the thing is that all the Cambodians who are elite themselves and the donors, however generous they are, they missed out on what to do to rebuild Cambodian society to build a pluralistic democratic liberal system,” he said.

Despite the ruling CPP’s “systematic control of the system,” how­ever, Mr. Mong Hay said that there is a growing grassroots understanding of the situation.

“I’m more positive in the sense that more and more Cambodians have realized there are more injustices and nepotism is wide and many don’t like it,” he said.

“I think more people have taken action. There is awareness and perhaps we would see that in votes.”

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said claims the forthcoming July election would not be fair were simply the excuses of parties who had no chance of winning against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party, which has dominated Cambodian politics in one form or another since 1993.

“It is a losers’ culture,” Mr. Yeap said of the pessimistic comparisons between the 1993 and 2013 elections.

“If there are two or more political parties, that is called multiparty. Other political parties should work hard. We work hard, and you should work hard too,” he advised the country’s opposition.

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha also denied that the forthcoming national elections would be unfair, noting that international observers had given their stamp of approval to previous ballots.

“This is just an opinion of an individual or a group of people,” Mr. Nytha said.

“We always have national and international observers during each election. And most of them think that the elections have gone very well. Violence has decreased. And this contributes to the process of building democracy and the nation.”

In October, the European Union issued a resolution urging “the Cambodian Government, the National Election Committee and the provincial election committees to implement the recent U.N. recommendations on re­forming the electoral system to ensure it conforms with international standards before, during and after the casting of votes.”

The U.N. recommendations cited were made by the world body’s special envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, in a report released in August 2012.

“There are major flaws in the administration of elections in Cam­bodia and urgent and longer-term reforms are needed to give Cambodians confidence in the electoral process and in the workings of the National Election Committee,” Mr. Subedi stated in that report.

(Additional reporting by Kaing Menghun)

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