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  • Conducting Cambodia’s Elections
  • Kassie Neou (bio) and Jeffrey C. Gallup (bio)

When I was offered the job of vice chairman of Cambodia’s National Election Committee, friends and colleagues told me that I had no idea what I would be getting into. They said that there would be more work and more pressure than I had ever known. There was no guarantee of success, they added, and in any event, after the elections were over, I should expect not gratitude, but criticism. My friends advised me to take the job anyway, so I did. Their predictions were right on all counts.

The National Election Committee (NEC) was charged with running Cambodia’s July 1998 National Assembly elections. Against all odds, it organized elections of a high technical quality. In the end, however, politics undermined the election process and led to turmoil and bloodshed. Eventually, in November 1998, the winning and losing parties decided to form a new coalition government. This episode demonstrated all too clearly that much of Cambodia’s leadership views elections not as the paramount political process through which people choose their leaders, but merely as one facet of a broader and relentless struggle for power. [End Page 152]

When I was asked to join the National Election Committee in early 1998, the prospects for free and fair elections looked far from promising. The uneasy coalition government joining the first and second finishers in the 1993 UN-run elections, First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (Funcinpec) and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ex-communist Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), had exploded in flames the previous year. On 5–6 July 1997, the military forces of the CPP had ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and many senior government officials and members of parliament had joined him in exile. According to reports from the UN Center for Human Rights, close to 100 persons, many of them military loyal to Prince Ranariddh, had been summarily executed during and after the July events. The original Funcinpec effectively ceased to function as a party. Some senior Funcinpec ministers and officials in Cambodia remained loyal to Prince Ranariddh while others created new parties that joined hands with the CPP. Still other Funcinpec backers mounted a small armed resistance in the northwest of Cambodia, which Hun Sen’s forces failed to eliminate entirely.

In effect, Cambodia had split into warring factions once again, but Hun Sen had the upper hand, having effectively removed all serious opposition to his party’s rule. The Cambodian peace settlement of 1991 was in tatters. The international community reacted with deep dismay. Many international donors cut off or suspended aid to Cambodia. The country’s prospective membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was postponed indefinitely and Cambodia lost its seat at the United Nations. Because of uncertainty about the country’s political stability, foreign tourism, trade, and investment declined, inflicting serious economic damage.

Although the international community was initially at a loss for ways to revive the peace process, it eventually became clear that elections could be used to promote a renewed attempt at reconciliation and democracy. After all, Hun Sen’s government continued to promise that it would hold free and fair elections in 1998, as required by the Cambodian constitution. Leading donors made the restoration of economic assistance contingent on free and fair elections. They prodded and pushed the Cambodian government, eventually achieving a deal whereby Prince Ranariddh and other opposition leaders were able to return under international safety guarantees and to compete in the elections. Although at various points some of the opposition dreamed that Western countries would use military force to throw out Hun Sen, this was never a serious prospect. Thus the international community, the Cambodian opposition, and the Cambodian People’s Party all pinned their hopes on the elections. Clearly, whatever happened, some of them were going to be disappointed. [End Page 153]

The job of organizing the elections fell to the National Election Committee, in principle a neutral and independent body completely separate from the Cambodian government. I, among others, had lobbied to create just such a...

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