Chances for Free, Fair Election Fading

Peter Eng has been covering Cambodia since the 1980s

As Cambodian politics becomes more autocratic and divisive, it's highly unlikely the country's general election, scheduled for July, will be free and fair. Countries counting on the election to restart democratic development in Cambodia may have to think longer term and focus on other ways of coaxing change.

Late last month, all sides agreed to a formula under which Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whom Hun Sen ousted as co-prime minister in a coup last year, would return from exile to contest the election. Except for the European Union, which gave Cambodia $10.5 million to help fund the election, most countries, including the United States, say the election would be meaningless without his participation. But it's a delicate process that could go terribly wrong. Ranariddh's forces still battle Hun Sen's troops in the country's northwest.

The prince's FUNCINPEC party already has been battered, perhaps beyond repair. After the coup, Hun Sen's forces executed more than 40 of Ranariddh's senior followers and shut down his party offices, according to U.N. investigators. Many top FUNCINPEC officials spent months in exile, before recently returning. In his familiar divide-and-conquer strategy, Hun Sen has co-opted members of opposition parties and helped them to form splinter parties. His pliant judiciary has given these parties the right to use the original party names and logos.

Worse, fear again haunts political life. No one has been punished for the coup-related executions and a bloody grenade attack on an opposition rally last year (that attack also was blamed on Hun Sen's party). Terrorist-type attacks have increased in the countryside, and U.N. officials are investigating what appears to be a new round of politically motivated killings.

Although the political opposition is the exclusive target of the violence, many people are scared. They know there will not be 22,000 U.N. peacekeepers around to protect them, as in the last election in 1993.

Yet, while Hun Sen has tightened his grip on the security forces and will not hesitate to marshal them for political purposes, he may well lose the election. The grenade attack and the coup have driven his formerly Communist Party to new depths of unpopularity. During the 1993 campaign, his party intimidated voters and murdered workers of rival parties. Still, Ranariddh's party won.

The opposition politicians and the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch have criticized the European Union for giving aid while so many conditions undermine a free and fair election. They warn against the tendency of countries to focus on the election as the panacea for human-rights abuses. Instead, they contend, the emphasis should be on the abuses themselves because the election will be meaningless if they are not first resolved.

It's not quite that simple. Because they delivered aid, EU officials succeeded in persuading Hun Sen to overturn a ban on six opposition newspapers, thus improving the climate for the election. Ok Serei Sopheak, an advisor to Interior Minister Sar Kheng and reputedly a leading reformer within Hun Sen's party, says countries that refuse to fund the election unless human rights abuses are first resolved are being unrealistic.

"The July executions were horrible. We have to condemn and arrest those responsible," he said. "But how? In Cambodia, if you want to arrest someone on the street, it's very easy. But if you want to arrest someone who has power, how can you do that? If you link everything to July, we cannot go forward. Human rights issues cannot be solved in six months."

Some analysts say no amount of pressure will keep Hun Sen's party from retaining power by whatever means necessary. After the 1993 election, even with U.N. forces present, armed pro-Hun Sen groups threatened to seize several provinces, and his party muscled its way into dominance of the new government.

Hun Sen needs a good election to bolster his political legitimacy and restore the aid that countries cut to protest his coup. Yet, the world did not try to overturn his coup or even insist that Ranariddh be reinstated in office. The EU, by funding the election, has undercut even the demand that Ranariddh be allowed to run in the election. In the Cambodian peace accord of 1991, the United States and 18 other signatories pledged to ensure that its provisions be respected in the future. By tacitly condoning the coup, they showed they didn't want to devote as much to Cambodia as before.

But even if the opposition won and took power, the country's problems would be far from over. Hun Sen's people will retain their hold on the security apparatus, just as they did after the last election, to ensure their political power and physical safety.

Cambodian politics is not a black-and-white struggle of bad guys versus good guys, of Hun Sen's totalitarianism versus Ranariddh's pro-West liberalism. When Ranariddh's people were in government, many were just as autocratic and corrupt as Hun Sen's. Dissident leader Sam Rainsy is admired in the cities for his principles and courage, but he is unlikely to hold real power any time soon. His party organization is weak and constantly harassed by the authorities; his outspokenness has made him many enemies among the power brokers.

Those who are skeptical that the election will bring real change place their hopes on broader trends unfolding mostly outside the capital's fractious politics. Among them are the spread of human rights and other new ideas to the most remote villages; the decentralization of governance in the countryside; the remarkably quick and smooth integration into mainstream society of former Khmer Rouge members; the activism of the NGOs and other civic groups that proliferated after the U.N. mission, and the rise of a new generation of Cambodians unscarred by the divisions of the past. Also noteworthy are the efforts of reformers within Hun Sen's party; the unpopularity of the coup apparently has strengthened their leverage.

Although all opposition newspapers closed during the coup, some restarted soon after and went back to calling Hun Sen a "dog." At first, the human-rights NGOs laid low in the face of intimidation by the security forces. But they have bounced back to probe government abuses, including the executions of Ranariddh's followers. In recent weeks, hundreds of garment-factory workers, many of them young women from poor villages, have revived Cambodia's new labor movement by rallying in the streets to pressure the government to enforce the labor law and end abuses by employers.

Across the country, ordinary Cambodians guard the lessons the peacekeepers taught. In some villages, the shock of the coup made people appreciate even more the progress of recent years--and more resistant to any attempt to turn back the clock. In Phnom Penh, a motorbike taxi driver said he liked Ranariddh and not Ung Huot, whom Hun Sen chose as the new co-prime minister. Why, I asked. "The people chose him," the young man replied without hesitation.

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