The Newsletter 78 Autumn 2017

Cambodia Votes

Ronald Bruce St John

Reviewed title:
Michael Sullivan. 2016.
Cambodia Votes: Democracy, Authority and International Support for Elections 1993-2013
NIAS Press
ISBN 9788776941871


After two decades of strife, opposing Cambodian factions in October 1991 concluded several agreements, collectively known as the Paris Peace Accords. One of the agreements called for the United Nations to create a special authority, which became the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), to serve as an interim force to run government ministries, verify disarmament, and organize elections for a national assembly. Another agreement called on the international community to provide economic assistance for the reconstruction of Cambodia. In international donor circles, it was widely accepted at the time that competitive multi-party elections were the optimum mechanism to put countries with little or no experience with democracy on the path to peace, prosperity, and democratization. An opposing school of thought held that elections should not be held until the rule of law and democratic institutions had been firmly established and consolidated in a country like Cambodia.

In Cambodia Votes, Michael Sullivan, a long-time resident of Cambodia and an advisor to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Phnom Penh, analyzes the impact the 1993 UNTAC-supported elections had on the subsequent development of electoral politics in the country up to and including 2013. In this period, Cambodia held four sets of parliamentary or national elections and three sets of commune or local elections. With the exception of the 2012 local and the 2013 national elections, all of these polls were conducted with significant international financial and technical support. With the end of the Cold War, the number of states embracing some form of democratic government dramatically increased, and in this milieu, the UNTAC-supported elections conducted in Cambodia in 1993 were celebrated as a unique achievement. Unfortunately, the less-than-democratic outcome of those elections in which Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ran second in the balloting but remained in power began a two-decade period in which internationally assisted elections were manipulated and controlled by Hun Sen and the CPP. Instead of sparking lasting change in the traditional political culture in areas like power-sharing and loyal opposition, the political elite after the 1993 elections largely drew on long familiar aspects of Cambodian political culture to promote modernization within an authoritarian political model.

Over the ensuing two decades, powerful political forces within the Cambodian government and the dominant CPP regularly manipulated the electoral process to ensure the outcomes they desired. This manipulation took a variety of forms with intimidation, coercion, exclusion, violence, and fraud commonplace. Democratic procedures, respect for human rights, and concern for social justice were concepts bandied about but seldom implemented. Instead, the ruling parties returned to the client system prevalent in earlier eras, a system in which access to power and wealth was sought and achieved through place and position with connections most often determining the level of justice obtained.

As Sullivan emphasizes, the Hun Sen government, even as it subverted the political process, strove to keep the political system credible enough to satisfy the wishes and interests of its international partners and donors. In turn, the international community found itself in the ambivalent position of promoting democracy on the one hand while welcoming the order and stability that a flawed political process contributed to on the other. ‘At the same time, as there was a need for political stability – even if that meant glossing over human rights abuses and the rule of law – there was also a need for the international community in Cambodia to at least be seen to be “promoting liberal democratic values”’ (p. 110). The result was a situation known as electoral authoritarianism in which opposition parties competed in elections, supported and observed by international bodies, which appeared to be competitive but in which the opposition could win votes and seats but never an outright victory because of authoritarian meddling and manipulation.

The author concludes on an optimistic note, arguing ‘the 2013 election results demonstrated the power of Cambodian elections to challenge the entrenched power of the CPP’ (p. 290). Whether or not his optimism is justified remains to be seen, but it certainly will be tested in the upcoming 2017 local and 2018 national elections. In this regard, the abrupt resignation in the face of increasing government pressure of Sam Rainsy, the embattled leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, just four months before the June 2017 local elections is not reassuring. Regardless of the outcome of future elections, the Cambodian experience after 1993 remains a sobering example of the interrelated challenges which must be addressed to nurture democracy in less developed political economies. In Cambodia Votes, Sullivan makes a major contribution to the ongoing debate over whether multi-party elections are a path to democratization or whether direct elections should be delayed until the rule of law and democratic institutions are established. In addition to academics and other specialists in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, this book should be read by diplomats and policy-makers faced with similar problems in other countries around the world.

Ronald Bruce St John, Independent Scholar