Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Democracy Gains a Foothold in Cambodia

Catharin E. Dalpino

Official returns have confirmed a broad sweep of Cambodia’s ruling party, the Cambodia People’s Party, in the country’s first local elections. Critics in the U.S. policy community cite these elections as proof that democracy has failed in Cambodia. By their measure, elections are the sole indicator of democracy, which is easily obtained by installing democratically minded leaders and banishing authoritarian incumbents. American views of foreign policy processes have long been framed in contests between heroes and bogeymen.

This rigid, if romantic, approach does not consider the dual challenges that Cambodia faces, of political development and recovery from a quarter century of internal conflict. Nor does it question whether the international intervention in Cambodia a decade ago, and its signature “transitional” election, have raised unrealistic expectations for democracy there. These are crucial issues, not only for Cambodia’s political future but also for other countries, most notably Afghanistan, that are struggling with these simultaneous processes. Cambodia offers several lessons for Afghanistan, and for international efforts there:

* Democracy has a broader definition in postconflict societies. While Westerners often see elections as a precondition for democratization, Cambodians tend to look first to the improvement of civil liberties in everyday life. The most comprehensive survey of Cambodian political attitudes, commissioned by The Asia Foundation with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, showed that only 3 percent of Cambodians associate democracy with elections. Freedoms of expression and association, neither of which existed in the Khmer Rouge era, are seen as more essential to the development of democracy in Cambodia. In countries that have suffered profound devastation, free and fair elections may be the culmination of the democratization process, rather than the commencement.

* Incumbency is often stronger than international intervention. The transitional election is an enduring post-Cold War model: held under international supervision, designed to end civil war and usher in a democratic government. More often than not, however, incumbent authoritarians prevail in these processes, through the ballot box (as they did in Bosnia in 1966 and Liberia in 1997), or after the election, as they did in Cambodia in 1993. Incumbents have control of local networks and national administrative and judicial structures. Transitional elections are further complicated when political exiles, often supported by the West, return to contest for power. In Cambodia, political transplants have found it difficult to establish grassroots bases, as last month’s local elections proved. Afghan returnees will likely face similar problems.

* Political violence is, tragically, the norm in many democratizing countries. In countries where political parties have not established broad networks or strong policy platforms, intimidation is a common campaign tactic. Forty-five people were killed during the Philippines presidential election in 1998; 12 deaths were reported in the June 2000 Indonesian elections. The toll in the Cambodian local elections, estimated at two dozen, is deplorable but middling for the neighborhood.

* Any “short cuts” to democratization are more likely found in civil society than in the formal system. A decade of political development in Cambodia has not produced a strong democratic system, but it has accelerated the establishment of a vigorous press and an activist nongovernmental sector. In their assertiveness, these institutions outdistance their counterparts in several neighboring countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, and serve a watch-dog function in lieu of stronger checks and balances in the formal system.

* The timetables for genuine conflict resolution and democratization far exceed those set by an impatient international community. The international plan for Cambodia envisioned quantum leaps; the reality is a slower process, with intervals of backsliding. Cambodian democracy activists mark two gains in the local elections, however modest. Facing political polls, the CPP pruned the most incompetent or corrupt from its party list. And despite the overwhelming margin of victory for the ruling party, its absolute monopoly at the local level has been broken. Neither of these incremental steps register on the international community’s scale of democratization for Cambodia.

* Political culture, not individual leaders, can present the greatest obstacle to democracy and peace. The most intangible, but important, barometers of democratization and conflict resolution are found in the attitudes of everyday citizens. The Asia Foundation survey revealed that political tolerance is a public norm in Cambodia, but not a personal one. Two-thirds of Cambodians polled believe that all political parties should be allowed to operate, but nearly the same percentage also said they would end a friendship with someone who supported an unpopular party. Below Cambodia’s new political structures lie cliques with codes of rigid adherence. In societies where political violence penetrated to the most personal level—as it did in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and in Afghanistan under the Taliban—this fundamental intolerance should come as no surprise. It will not be remedied with a singular focus on elections.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings