Today Cambodia’s National Election Commission is to announce the results of the July 27 parliamentary elections, the country’s third since a peace agreement a decade ago ended years of genocide and civil war.
Many diplomats and international observers have already blessed this election as credible and legitimate. The truth is far more complicated and frustrating. I came to this conclusion after leading an election observation mission for the International Republican Institute, which has closely monitored Cambodia’s political climate for 10 years.
In Cambodia, as in other countries, no election takes place in a vacuum. The cultural and political history of a country sets the stage for the effectiveness of the process and the pressure applied to it.
In 1993 the Cambodian people surprised observers by overcoming violence and intimidation to vote out the government of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). But Hun Sen, the prime minister, forced the winning party into a coalition government and then wrested full control in a 1997 coup. Subsequent elections that cemented the CPP’s dominance were racked by further violence and fraud.
The notoriety of Cambodia’s horrific past can have the effect of making any subsequent regime or leader look good by comparison. There is also the temptation to measure this Cambodian election simply in relation to the previous election. Were fewer people killed? Was there less intimidation? Did the opposition have more access to the media? Or, as I heard many times, particularly from European observers, aren’t things “better” this time?
This year Cambodia did see more open expression of political opinion and lively campaigns. Parties could reach voters through events and grass-roots voter outreach. For the first time, Cambodia held multiparty debates that were broadcast on radio. Some media coverage criticized the government, the CPP and even the prime minister. The voting and counting procedures were efficiently administered and relatively free of major irregularities.
But the correct question for the international community should really be: Did Cambodia meet recognized international standards for the conduct of free and fair elections? Despite the many improvements, the answer is no.
While the number of politically motivated murders declined from that of the 1998 election, less visible but equally effective methods of intimidation were reported to both human rights groups and election observers. It does not take much, after all, to create a sense of menace in a country with a long history of bloodshed and civil conflict. In some rural areas, government-appointed village chiefs gathered citizens to swear oaths — sometimes over a bullet — to the CPP. I watched other village chiefs sit outside polling stations and check off voters as they entered and exited, providing a palpable sense they were being monitored despite casting a secret ballot. I talked to another voter who had been threatened by the CPP village chief for his support of an opposition party.
The ostensibly neutral National Election Commission is dominated by government appointees from the CPP. Even though nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups documented hundreds of election law violations, this commission imposed no penalties until three village chiefs were temporarily suspended two days before the election.
In Cambodia, where one-third of the population is illiterate, access to television and radio time is even more critical than in the United States. This year opposition parties were given only a few minutes a day on state television to broadcast their campaign messages. The rest of the day’s broadcasts invariably consisted of footage and reports touting the accomplishments of the government and Hun Sen.
When opposition parties and human rights groups tried to acquire their own radio station licenses, they were told that no more frequencies were available. Yet the government later awarded a radio license to an adviser of Hun Sen.
Last week the Cambodian people showed an inspiring determination to vote. Many traveled for hours to reach a polling place, only to wait several more hours in the oppressive heat and humidity. Early reports indicate that voter turnout exceeded 80 percent.
There isn’t one election standard for Cambodia and another for the rest of us. The international community must continue to follow the implementation of the election results, encourage further reforms that reflect accepted democratic standards and call on the Cambodian government to thoroughly investigate the allegations of political misconduct and ensure the punishment of the guilty. The Cambodian people deserve no less.
The writer has served as governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She headed an election observation delegation in Cambodia for the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan organization that supports democracy overseas.Top