Cambodia: The Elections – Déjà vu

2003

Dr Milton Osborne

As happened in the1998 national elections, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won a plurality of the seats contested on 27 July, but failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority of seats that would allow it to govern in its own right. And, as before, both Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC and the eponymous Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) have so far declared that they are not prepared to form a coalition with the CPP to give it the majority it needs to govern.

The official results of the election for the 123-seat National Assembly, announced on 8 August, gave the CPP 47.35 per cent of the vote for a projected tally of 73 seats; the SRP secured 21.87 per cent of the vote; while FUNCINPEC received 20.75 per cent of the vote, with FUNCINPEC and the SRP gaining 26 and 24 seats, respectively. Under the Cambodian Constitution the National Assembly is required to convene within 60 days of the election, but there is no mandated time for the formation of a new government.

There was less violence associated with these elections than was the case in 1998 and international observers have characterised the vote as relatively free and fair. In contrast, internal critics of the dominant CPP claim there were major irregularities and that some 30 persons were killed since January in order to intimidate voters opposed to the ruling party. What is clear is that the election result reflects the CPP's success in establishing a pervasive presence in the Cambodian countryside, where it has used both carrot and stick to advance its position among the 80 per cent of the electorate who live in rural areas. During travel through rural areas of Siem Reap province in June, I was struck by the widespread presence of CPP banners and symbols in even remote villages; the near total absence of any similar signs for FUNCINPEC; and a small but significant presence of symbols associated with the SRP.

This CPP presence, which is replicated in other provinces throughout the country, enables the party's activists to woo the rural poor with small monetary gifts, while using the now well-established technique of making voters swear loyalty oaths by drinking holy water from glasses containing bullets - the clear implication is that failure to honour an undertaking to vote as promised risks being followed by execution. According to a well-respected Financial Times correspondent, no fewer than 15,000 people were made to swear such oaths to support the CPP in Siem Reap province. In contrast to the voting patterns in rural areas, the combined votes for the SRP and FUNCINPEC were larger than those cast for the CPP in Phnom Penh and in the urban and near-urban constituencies of Kompong Cham and Kandal.

One sidelight of the election that deserves mention was the continuing deterioration in relations between King Sihanouk and the CPP. In a statement released just before the elections the king asserted that under Hun Sen's government the Khmer Rouge was more powerful than ever, a fact shown, he said, by the amnesties granted to former KR senior officials and the integration of KR soldiers into the national army.

For the moment it is likely that there will be a great deal of public theatre before there is a resolution to the current stand-off. Sam Rainsy and FUNCINPEC chief Prince Norodom Ranariddh have announced plans to join forces as an 'Alliance of Democrats' seeking to pressure the ruling CPP into forming a tripartite government, without Prime Minister Hun Sen at the helm. However, Hun Sen has made quite clear his continuing intention to maintain his iron grip on power whatever course of action his opponents choose to follow.

An immediate, if temporary, casualty of the electoral impasse is the proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal. The agreement reached between the government and the United Nations for the establishment of the tribunal awaits ratification by parliament and this cannot be achieved so long as there is no resolution of the current situation.

The tribunal is only one of many important issues unresolved. Among these is the problem of illegal logging. Since the government dismissed the NGO selected to monitor logging, Global Witness, earlier this year, there has been no official watchdog to oversee the exploitation of Cambodia's forests; and the World Bank is refusing to release a US$15 million loan until this problem is resolved. Meanwhile, illegal logging continues, in some cases with clear support from government officials.

WATCHPOINT: Can an eventual compromise be reached to end the current post-election impasse without violence such as occurred in 1998?

 

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