By Lauren Crothers - March 15, 2013
The Cambodia Daily
Cambodia’s fifth national election in July is likely to be the least
fair in the 20 years since the U.N. organized the historic 1993
elections, which were designed to usher in a multiparty democracy after
years of communist rule and civil war, the Committee for Free and Fair
Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) said on Wednesday.
“This is the start of the least fair elections,” Comfrel executive director Koul Panha said.
“If you compare it to 2008 or 2003 or during UNTAC time, UNTAC time
was much better in terms of fairness; much, much better than this,” Mr.
Panha said, referring to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia,
which administered Cambodia from 1992 to 1993.
“Now, everything is controlled by the ruling party in terms of
military, police, media—that’s a concern—and the new problem is the
leader of the opposition not being able to participate in these
elections,” he said.
“And also going into the future, we don’t know what will happen over the next coming five years.”
According to its annual report titled Democracy, Elections and Reform
in Cambodia, which Comfrel released on Monday, democratic reform
deteriorated so much over the past year that “Cambodia’s political
system is in an increasingly fragile state of democracy.”
The political playing field continues to be far from level, and the
government’s National Election Committee (NEC) continues to reject the
majority of recommendations put to it by independent election monitoring
groups, Comfrel said.
This was not what was envisioned 20 years ago when, in May 1993, as
decided in the Paris Peace Agreements, the U.N. invested billions to
disarm Cambodia’s warring political factions, repatriate some 300,000
Cambodian refugees from Thai border camps and organize the country’s
first national elections in decades.
To a large extent, UNTAC did all three. But the electoral climate two
decades on falls far short of what was hoped for in 1993 in terms of a
vibrant, participatory democracy.
“It doesn’t show a multiparty system,” Mr. Panha said of the current
political landscape. “It should be about the substantial engagement of
[lawmakers]…. It’s about how the parties play a role in politics and how
they influence decision making.”
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the legacy of UNTAC
was a series of missed opportunities that saw Cambodia segue from
communism to neopatrimonialism, where a ruling elite uses state
resources to build loyalty and solidify its own economic and political
“With regard to the UNTAC legacy, the thing is that all the
Cambodians who are elite themselves and the donors, however generous
they are, they missed out on what to do to rebuild Cambodian society to
build a pluralistic democratic liberal system,” he said.
Despite the ruling CPP’s “systematic control of the system,”
however, Mr. Mong Hay said that there is a growing grassroots
understanding of the situation.
“I’m more positive in the sense that more and more Cambodians have
realized there are more injustices and nepotism is wide and many don’t
like it,” he said.
“I think more people have taken action. There is awareness and perhaps we would see that in votes.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said claims the forthcoming July election
would not be fair were simply the excuses of parties who had no chance
of winning against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party, which has
dominated Cambodian politics in one form or another since 1993.
“It is a losers’ culture,” Mr. Yeap said of the pessimistic comparisons between the 1993 and 2013 elections.
“If there are two or more political parties, that is called
multiparty. Other political parties should work hard. We work hard, and
you should work hard too,” he advised the country’s opposition.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha also denied that the forthcoming
national elections would be unfair, noting that international observers
had given their stamp of approval to previous ballots.
“This is just an opinion of an individual or a group of people,” Mr. Nytha said.
“We always have national and international observers during each
election. And most of them think that the elections have gone very well.
Violence has decreased. And this contributes to the process of building
democracy and the nation.”
In October, the European Union issued a resolution urging “the
Cambodian Government, the National Election Committee and the provincial
election committees to implement the recent U.N. recommendations on
reforming the electoral system to ensure it conforms with international
standards before, during and after the casting of votes.”
The U.N. recommendations cited were made by the world body’s special
envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, in a report released in August 2012.
“There are major flaws in the administration of elections in
Cambodia and urgent and longer-term reforms are needed to give
Cambodians confidence in the electoral process and in the workings of
the National Election Committee,” Mr. Subedi stated in that report.