Cambodia: Miracle on the Mekong' or 'The more things change ...'


Milton Osborne

Amid widespread relief, the Cambodian elections took place on 26 July with minimal violence. As widely predicted, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won the largest number of seats - 64 out of a total of 122. Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC secured 43, while Sam Rainsy's party gained 15. (Quite apart from challenges to the results, at the time of writing, final figures for the number of seats won by each party have yet to be released). So Hun Sen has emerged as the clear winner in terms of seats won, but he does not hold the two-thirds majority required under the constitution to form a government. Theatrics, challenges and brinkmanship aside, the odds are that Hun Sen will be able to persuade enough of his opponents to join him in a coalition government. Much ink has been spilt over whether the elections were 'free and fair'. The prominent American observer and former congressman, Stephen Solarz, characterised the election as the 'Miracle on the Mekong'. In contrast, human rights groups have emphasised the advantages Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) enjoyed in the run-up to the election and queried some of the methods used by the incumbent party at the time of voter registration. Just as medieval theologians argued about the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin, so the meaning of 'free and fair' can be debated endlessly. Realistically, with the election now over and with 'compassion fatigue' affecting many governments, it is almost inconceivable that the result will be reversed. Governments, Australia's included, hope that the election will bring an end to debate about the morality of giving aid to Cambodia. And ASEAN has already made clear its satisfaction with the result. Ultimately, the extent to which Cambodia, as a result of the elections, can move forward, depends on the Cambodians themselves. Will the losers decide that there is little to gain by continuing to protest against the results? And will Hun Sen demonstrate a sufficient degree of magnanimity to recruit opposition deputies to his side? Whatever the case, and even without a lapse back into violence, Cambodia remains disturbingly unstable, a mendicant state in which the majority of the population live in poverty and the AIDS epidemic marches on unchecked.

WATCHPOINT: An ill-judged decision by any of the major political players to resort to violence could alter the fragile status quo.


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