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Observing the Cambodia national elections

by Will Capel

On July 27th, 2003, the Kingdom of Cambodia hit the polls to vote for a new National Assembly, the fourth nationwide election held since the United Nations arrived in 1992. As a current resident of Cambodia, as well as an interested party to those lofty freedom and justice theories that get bandied about, I thought it would behoove me to volunteer as an election observer. Sure, the pay was lousy - work for free, and you pay for your own interpreter and transportation - but I figured that I'd get a story out of the process, and maybe some insight into what makes this country work. Or not work, depending on your point of view.

Those of us who have lived in Cambodia for a while understand that little gets done without a catchy acronym, so I dutifully called a friend at LICADHO to volunteer as an observer for NICFEC to make sure that the CPP didn't steal the election from FUNCINPEC. Perhaps this is the source of Sam Rainsy's perennial polling problems; SRP is just as easy to say as Sam Rainsy Party. NICFEC, it seems, has structured their expatriate international observer program so that it is prohibitively complicated for expats in the provinces (i.e., myself, and a few others that I know of in Sihanoukville) to attend training. Which is frustrating, since it seems like the observers the country needs most are expats who don't live in Phnom Penh - I mean, the whole country does revolve around Phnom Penh in a certain fashion, but 85 percent of the Cambodian population lives in the countryside. But I digress.

My informal election monitoring consisted of being awake as most people were headed to the polls, and then hosting a party for staff and friends who voted. Our landlords donated a karaoke machine, we threw a few slabs of beer on ice, and grilled some squid, since that was the only seafood available in the market. Most of the town shut down and the fishermen were voting. Everyone sang, danced that peculiar circular dance, encouraged friends and strangers to embarrass themselves and laugh. Kids ran around the yard and played their toss-the-flip-flop game. Motodrivers with blackened fingers got a cold beer. It didn't matter who you voted for, just that you voted.

I'm American, and I don't know who is the best leader for Cambodia. I've read the newspaper articles and most of the scholarly books available covering the past fifty years of Khmer history, and I have my opinions, however, they don't really matter - I wasn't born here, I live here by choice, and am grateful that Cambodian nationals put up with me. Who Cambodia elects to govern is none of my business. I can, however, respond to the foreign interest in the election process.

Mitch McConnell, United States Senator from Kentucky, believes that Cambodia has not had a free and fair election. He believed that from the beginning of the campaigning process here, and has gone one step further - by offering an additional US$21 million dollars in aid if Hun Sen is removed from power. If that isn't vote-buying in the classic sense, I'm not really sure what is - that works out to about 6500 riel per Cambodian citizen; the number goes up to 13,300 riel per registered voter - a far cry above the usual payments and gifts that have been documented from all three major parties in Cambodia, including the parties that McConnell advocates as the preferred leadership.

The official NICFEC election observers I've spoken with have said that what they've seen has been above the board. It remains unfortunate that they were all temporary Phnom Penh transplants. The English-language newspaper accounts I've read (the Bangkok Post and the Cambodia Daily) have offered extensive coverage that, while biased by their own political views, has portrayed a picture of general tranquility coupled with reporters desperate for any angle of corruption, any sign of violence, any sign that things aren't right. So far, they've come up with a blown-up rubbish bin in front of FUNCINPEC headquarters with no idea of the culprit. No bloodbaths in the streets. The international news sources - CNN, BBCWorld, and their partner websites - are more sensationalistic but a destroyed trashcan just doesn't carry the same emotional weight as queues and queues of Cambodian nationals lining up, peacefully, to vote.

As I write this, the Tuesday after the election, the preliminary results show that the Cambodian People's Party has scored a solid, if not landslide victory, with 73 seats to FUNCINPEC's 24, and Sam Rainsy's 26. Was this a free and fair election, which has been and will be the catchphrase used? I'm not sure, and I don't think anyone inside or outside of Cambodia is fully qualified to judge. The same intimidation and bribery charges that are often leveled at the CPP could just as easily be applied to the other contending parties as well - both Sam Rainsy and FUNCINPEC have consistently played on racial hatred of the Vietnamese, while FUNCINPEC and minor parties have tried to lay claim to being sponsored by His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk, allegiances which His Majesty has gone to great lengths to dispute.

I think it is cowardly, however, to say that this is the best election that Cambodia could hope for. The Kingdom of Cambodia doesn't deserve anything less than a parliamentary democracy as put forth in the Constitution of this country. The excuse of "hey, this is Cambodia, what do you expect?" just doesn't wash considering the shenanigans that have played out in most Western democracies. Off of the top of my head, I think a valid argument could and maybe should be made that international observers from the United Kingdom, United States, France, Italy, and Germany should automatically be suspect given their particular political climates at the moment. Were the Cambodian elections of 2003 free and fair? From my point of view in Sihanoukville, as free and fair as anywhere in the world. The Kingdom of Cambodia has voted for their leadership and that should be respected.


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The material on this page is 2003 estate of Will Capel. Unless otherwise stated all other text and photographs appearing on this website are 1998 - 2005 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.