Cambodias election stands out in region short of democracy

Marwaan Macan-Markar
Manila Times
1 August 2003

Despite being one of Southeast Asias poorest countries, Cambodia succeeded this week in pulling off a general election that can easily shame most of its regional neighbors, where democracy is either absent or skin deep.

It is, furthermore, a political accomplishment that has been endorsed by the independent poll observers involved at Sundays election. Reports trickling in from these independent groups point to the atmosphere on the July 28 polling day being free and fair.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sens Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP), was declared the winner in the poll that involved 22 political parties.

The two other frontrunners that secured seats in the 123-member National Assembly are the royalist Funcinpec Party, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a son of Cambodian King Sihanouk and the Sam Rainsy Party, led by former finance minister and oppositionist Sam Rainsy.

The poll was conducted in a peaceful manner. It was obvious that the CPP tried hard to make sure the election was transparent, says Sunai Phasuk, an analyst with the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel), a regional polls monitor. This also showed that threats from the US government and the European Union worked.

Vote buying

In the run-up to this parliamentary electionthe third since a 1991 UN peace deal that ended decades of war and civil unrest in CambodiaPhnom Penh was pressured to conduct a fair poll by the major aid-giving countries or face the consequences.

The sentiments of US Sen. Mitch McConnell were typical of the hostility in the west toward Hun Sen, whose years in power have earned him the stripes of a strongman for the coercive methods used to achieve his political ends. McConnell warned Cambodias 6.3 million eligible voters that the country could lose large chunks of aid from Washington if Hun Sen was reelected.

The credibility of the poll, however, suffered in its lead-up due to reports of vote-buying and other economic carrots dangled by the political parties to sway the public into their fold. Threats were also used in some quarters to intimidate voters, stated the New York-based rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a briefing paper released before Sundays election.

Local officials affiliated with the CPP were threatening opposition party supporters with violence, expulsion from their villages and denial of access to community resources, the HRW study revealed. Threats ranged from being rejected for village rice distribution to having land confiscated for voting for the opposition.

However, in truth, the three major parties were linked to vote-buying schemes, Anfrels Sunai told IPS. Some used methods such as election lotteries, where voters were promised a reward if the party that had distributed these special lottery tickets won.

Cambodias election stands out in region short of democracy

This mixed picture of Cambodias journey toward political normalcy brings it closer to the countries in Southeast Asia that have placed faith in democracy, such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Many nations elsewhere in the region, by contrast, are either no respecters of such a political culturesuch as Burma, Vietnam and Laosor have it in form but not in realitysuch as Malaysia and Singapore. In all of them, the space of a political opposition ranges from narrow to nonexistent.

Cambodias political achievement on Sunday is important for this region, Tian Chua, vice president of Malaysias Justice Party, told IPS. Countries belonging to the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] should follow the lead of this emerging democracy.

Chua, who was released last month after a two-year prison sentence for his political activities, belongs to an opposition party founded by the wife of Malaysias former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar himself is in prison on charges of corruption and sodomy, which he and his political allies say was a case of political victimization.

The political opposition in Singapore has found even smaller space for it, and critics have blasted the government for using lawsuitsand the threat of financial ruinto get at its political opponents.

Commitment to democracy

But for Asean to shed its image as being inhospitable to democracy, the region needs more than the free and fair elections that were achieved in Cambodia, adds Chua. We lack political leaders who are committed to democracy. We need them to shape the regions political picture.

Hun Sen, he points out, hardly qualifies, given the record of the CPP to secure past wins at the polls. During Cambodias first-ever local government election in January last year, the CPP was named by poll observers and rights organizations for being linked to the election-related deaths and widespread cases of intimidation.

Hun Sen has also been dogged by his links to leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the genocide committed from 1975-79, resulting in the deaths of over 1.7 million people from torture, starvation and illness.

As of now, there is hardly a sign of a democratic leader that Tian Chua has in mind emerging on the Aseans political horizon. The Asean countries are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, for instance, has shown his disdain for democracy by trying to silence his critics at home and Indonesia President Megawati Sukarnoputris policies toward the separatist struggle in the province of Aceh has been criticized by human rights groups.

The Philippines democratic record has been solid since a 1986 popular uprising. But President Gloria Arroyo has had to battle questions of legitimacy since she was not elected to office, but assumed her post after her predecessor was forced to step down over corruption charges in 2001.

The absence of leaders committed toward democracy has hampered the political development of this region, says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist on Southeast Asian affairs for the English-language daily The Nation. The changes since the September 11 incidents, with a stress on national security, will only worsen this situation.

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