Hearings on the Cambodian Elections and Beyond

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate your invitation to discuss the present situation in Cambodia, the problems of encouraging free and fair elections there, and the longer-term prospects for Cambodian democracy. I am presently a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, an Associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and Co-Director of the Cambodia Policy Study Group. The views expressed here are my own, and not necessarily those of the Brookings Institution, Georgetown University, or the Cambodia Policy Study Group.

It is a truism that one election does not make a democracy. At the same time, it is clear that the international community viewed the 1993 Cambodian elections as nothing short of a democratic miracle. The Paris Peace Accords tied up one loose end of the Cold War, if they didn’t settle the Cambodian conflict itself. The elections—planned, managed and monitored by the international community—were widely perceived to be free and fair, if they didn’t ensure Cambodian capacity to continue a regular electoral process. And, in the heady global climate of the early 1990’s when “pop-up democracy” seemed to be the norm in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Cambodia’s ambitious plan of democratic nation-building did not seem extraordinary.

Political events since then, beginning with the CPP’s refusal to accept the results of the 1993 elections, have ratcheted down hopes for a rapid, smooth democratization process for Cambodia. There is little reason to believe that the 1998 elections, even if they are reasonably free and fair, will return the country to a democratic fast track. If they are marred by serious violence, vote-buying and other forms of electoral abuse, they are sure to prevent or slow further progress for some time. But despite our understandable concern for these elections, it is necessary and worthwhile to consider steps and policies beyond them, whatever the involvement of the U.S. Government (or lack of) in assisting the elections, and whatever the outcome at the polls. In this statement, however, I am not advocating that the U.S. soften its position on the need for a free and fair election, or move the goalposts it has established to define a credible contest.

In Cambodia, it is often difficult to see the mid-term, much less the long-term, in the chaos of daily political life. So volatile is the present climate that elections may not in fact take place in July. The Japanese formula, a complicated dance designed to return Prince Ranariddh to the country in time to campaign for the election, could break down at any stage on any side. Even if sufficient political calm is maintained, there is growing doubt that the government will be able to manage the logistics and other procedural aspects of national elections.

If elections do go forward, however, there is every reason to believe that they will result in a coalition government, through the ballot box or through backroom manipulation, or both. And there is the increasing perception in Cambodia that the CPP will emerge as the senior partner. This week’s edition of the Phnom Penh Post states baldly that “Cambodian democracy extends only so far as the CPP maintains dominance: the only question about the next government is which party or parties will play the role of coalition partner to the CPP.” At bottom, Hun Sen is following a rationale in Cambodian electoral politics that pre-dates 1993—that the primary purpose of elections is to affirm and consolidate the power of the incumbent.

This tradition is weakened but not eliminated by the likely necessity of power-sharing. The Constitution now requires that the government be formed from the party or parties winning 75% of seats in the National Assembly. Had the 1993 election been conducted under the present Constitution, instead of by first-past-the-post rules, the official outcome would have been remarkably similar to the actual one. With FUNCINPEC’s 58 seats in the National Assembly, and the CPP’s 51, the two parties would have been forced to form a coalition government in order to gain a required minimum in the 120-member parliament. Beyond the arithmetic, public relations will encourage coalition-building. Whatever the reality, an election which produces a coalition government is less likely to invite suspicion of massive fraud than one in which a single party draws 75% of the vote. And it is obvious that the international community will find a coalition more palatable than undiluted CPP rule.

With such palpable prospects for power-sharing, if only on paper, opposition politicians are floating trial balloons for political mergers. In recent weeks, Sam Rainsy has speculated publicly about entering into an arrangement with Hun Sen. Although Rainsy is careful to indicate that he envisions a junior role for the KNP, he safeguards his democratic credentials by insisting that Hun Sen adhere to fair election practices. Pre-election jockeying of this sort is normal in many political systems, and is not by definition undemocratic. However, in Cambodia at this time it encourages the perception that the election is a foregone conclusion, with the CPP retaining the ruling hand.

Despite this possible outcome, and because of it, there are four specific areas that the international community should focus on to encourage Cambodia toward a more democratic system in the short to mid-term. One requires immediate attention, and could increase the chances for a credible election process.

1. The need to support and strengthen civil society in Cambodia, particularly those non-governmental organizations which perform an advocacy or watchdog function. One clear success story in democracy-building in Cambodia to date, and possibly the only one, is the development of non-governmental organizations. Cambodian NGO’s now cover a range of issues and functions, from delivery of social services in provincial areas, to human rights monitoring, to training in democratic values and processes. I don’t believe it would be an exaggeration to say that the Cambodian non-governmental sector outshines that of several other Asian societies, including some nations which have had a longer and easier road to democratization. This has been an area of focus for U.S. policy for some time, and one that has returned real bang for the buck. In fact, American assistance to Cambodian civil society pre-dates the Paris Accords. In the late 1980’s, using funds from its Congressional appropriation, The Asia Foundation provided training in the management of NGO’s to non-Communist Cambodians in the camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. This was the first such training offered to Cambodians anywhere.

Some participants in those programs returned to Cambodia to establish NGO’s, some of which focus on strengthening democracy and human rights. One notable example is Dr. Lao Mong Hay, the outspoken democracy activist and founder of the Khmer Institute for Democracy. Since 1993, U.S. assistance has supported a flowering of Cambodian NGO’s, including LICADHO (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), the pre-eminent human rights monitor; the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights; the Center for Social Development, the leading anti-corruption advocate; and the Women’s Media Center. These organizations have provided baseline data on human rights abuses in the wake of the July coup, and their monitoring and voter education activities will be crucial to a free and fair election.

Perhaps because they have received support and recognition from the international community, Cambodian NGO’s have managed to continue their operations in a political climate that has worsened steadily. It is significant that the leaders of democracy and human rights organizations chose to remain in Cambodia after the July events. In recent months, however, the CPP has established a commission to “monitor” democracy and human rights NGO’s, and some Cambodians allege that the party is courting smaller, poorer NGO’s with offers of funding. These developments, in the context of an election environment, are obviously worrisome.

It would be wrong to assume that the development of a civil society, even one as yeasty as Cambodia’s is becoming, can do full work of democratization. Without a formal system that provides sufficient checks and balances, and political parties which acknowledge and follow agreed-upon rules of the game, the efforts of NGO’s to promote democracy will be frustrating and limited. However, at this juncture the best means of promoting democracy in Cambodia, however incrementally, is in strengthening the “demand” side, through the non-governmental sector. The need to do so in the run-up to the elections is obvious. Less obvious, but equally important, is the need to continue support to Cambodian civil society beyond the elections, regardless of the outcome.

2. The need to complete Cambodia’s formal political system, with particular attention to the checks and balances provided by the Constitution. We have seen in Cambodia and elsewhere that new institutions can be subverted and neutralized when the political leadership lacks the intention and will to uphold them. Cambodia’s history, of centralized power through French-style bureaucracy and later through communism, makes it vulnerable to power monopolies. The Constitution seeks to contain such overreach where possible, through institutions such as the Supreme Council of the Magistracy (SCM), which promotes independence of the judiciary, and the Constitutional Council, which verifies the constitutionality of all laws passed by the National Assembly, including political party and election law.

Neither institution has been established as yet, although both are before the National Assembly for debate this term, which expires in September. Many Cambodians fear that Magistracy and Constitutional Councils created in the present political climate would become instruments of the CPP. They point to the newly-established National Election Council as the prime example of a stacked deck. These reservations, although valid, don’t obviate the need to have such agencies in place. “Rubber stamp” institutions are deplored by established democracies, with good reason, but they can be necessary place-markers until the next upswing in democratic momentum.

3. The need to address, at the earliest opportunity, the politicized nature of the armed forces, and the profound problems in civil-military relations. The greatest shortcoming of the UNCTAC period was the failure to demobilize the factions and depoliticize the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Left intact were two actively partisan factions, barely co-existing under the thin veneer of a national military. The armed forces, and the ganglia of local militia under CPP control in the provinces, became a blind spot in the international community’s democracy plans. On-site observers differ as to whether the majority of human rights abuses are committed by RCAF personnel or by militia, but there is broad consensus that the military is the greatest instrument of human rights abuse at this time.

The implications of this situation for the 1998 elections are self-evident, and quite serious. In election planning prior to his exile, Ranariddh had proposed putting the police and armed forces under the control of an independent, neutral commission during the campaign period. That is clearly unlikely for the 1998 elections. However, the fairness of future elections will greatly depend upon the parties’ ability to move toward a professional, depoliticized military, for reasons that include, but go far beyond, the conduct of elections.

The government has recently initiated a program to curtail and disarm the militia, with very modest results to date. The international community should press for its continuance beyond the period of election optics. Prior to the July coup, the World Bank began discussion on a larger demobilization plan for Cambodia, modelled after its work in some post-conflict African states. The Bank should be urged to revisit this proposal at the earliest opportunity.

In addition, the U.S. needs to integrate civil-military relations more effectively into its overall democracy program for Cambodia, because this issue holds the other elements hostage. The problem of a politicized military cannot be handed over entirely to the military-to-military relationship, because it goes beyond the mandate and purview of that relationship. For example, in 1996 an IMET seminar on military justice and human rights was conducted in Cambodia that was highly rated by Cambodians and Americans alike. Such efforts, however praiseworthy, miss an essential point: that the purpose of a politicized army is to commit human rights abuses in the protection of its leader or faction.

4. The need to press future coalition partners to share power more meaningfully in the everyday work of government. Assuming that the election results require a coalition, the international community should pay close attention to the form and substance of power-sharing. Some observers trace the beginning of the end of the FUNCINPEC/CPP coalition to March of 1996, when Ranariddh and Hun Sen clashed over this issue with regard to the provinces. Others go back farther, to the inception of the arrangement in 1993. The practice of assigning two ministers, one FUNCINPEC and one CPP, to each ministry was a signal that the bureaucracy, like the military, would be deeply factionalized.

This Noah’s Ark approach to government presented several dangers. Decision-making was more difficult. The possibility of corruption doubled. And, most significantly, the potential for rupture within the coalition—and a coup within the government—was greater because the fault lines had been institutionalized.

Mr. Chairman, a road map toward a more democratic, stable Cambodia contains a number of profound obstacles, if indeed such a map can even be drawn at this time. Unfortunately, the 1998 elections could be one such obstacle. In my view, the U.S. is right to be concerned about the credibility of this contest and, if necessary, to withhold support to the government for it. At the same time, I believe that the best interests of Cambodian democratic development and U.S. policy are served if we do not permit this election to represent the longterm prospects for progressive change in Cambodia, or the final judgement on our efforts to promote such change