Flawed System Sullies Cambodia's Election
Column: Rule by Fear
Hong Kong, China (UPI Asia Online) — Cambodia held a general election on Sunday, and while the National Election Committee was still gathering the election returns, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party already announced it had won 91 out of 123 seats, 18 seats more than in the last election and way ahead of its nearest rival, the Sam Rainsy Party, which had secured 26 seats.
The Sam Rainsy Party and three other parties that also won seats, according to the same announcement, quickly joined forces on Monday to denounce the results, charging that they had been “manipulated and rigged” by the ruling party. They cited “illegal and fraudulent practices” relating to “deletion of countless legitimate voters' names and artificial increase” in votes for the ruling party due to “illegitimate voters.”
The ruling party’s victory and the denouncement of it by the four non-ruling parties have come as no surprise. In fact this victory had been widely predicted even months before the polls. Some have cited the economic growth achieved over recent years by the ruling party and the electorate’s unity behind it in the face of Thailand’s recent encroachment on Cambodia as the main factors contributing to the win.
In fact, the ruling party’s victory should be attributed to the system of government it put in place when it was a full-fledged communist party in the 1980s. To this system was added a democratic veneer in 1993 when the country theoretically embraced parliamentary democracy, but it has remained basically intact and in firm control. The ruling party has utilized this system to get itself re-elected over and over since its defeat in the U.N.-organized election in 1993.
The ruling party has controlled all the state apparatus – including the National Election Committee, the judiciary, security forces, civil service and educational institutions – since the communist days. It has manned all important posts with its members, so that the state apparatus and the party apparatus are but one.
Such fusion can be seen in the proximity of the offices of the party, police stations and administrative offices, whose respective buildings are located next to one another in many provinces, districts and communities. Almost all village chiefs and heads of groups in villages are also members of the ruling party. All party cadres from top to bottom enjoy high social status, impunity and material benefits gained through illicit means.
Several months before the election, the ruling party was able to successfully tempt with such privileges thousands of members of the opposition parties, including some senior members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, to defect to it. The ruling party has proved very successful in enrolling members, so much so that just before this election one of its senior members claimed that his party had nearly 5 million members, and this out of just over 8 million voters in the country.
Through this extensive apparatus, the ruling party has been able to maintain firm control of the population. Members of each household must be registered in a police-issued family book and a residence book, and grassroots party officials must know each household and its members’ activities. Local party cadres who are also local officials can mobilize and induce the population to support the ruling party. They can also deny rival parties and even civil society organizations access to the population without prior permission. They can prevent, using force if need be, public meetings and training seminars organized by those parties and civil society organizations.
The ruling party has had a virtual monopoly and control of all the media, especially radio and television, on which the overwhelming majority of people depend for news and other information. It has been making use of this media year in year out, while its rival parties are deprived of it. Some press with limited circulation is freer, but the majority of newspapers are run by members or supporters of the ruling party, and it is rare that commercial companies dare put advertisements in newspapers known to be affiliated to any rival party.
The ruling party has been able to secure overwhelming resources for elections when it is in command of state resources and has a lot of support from private companies that seek favors for their business. Thanks to all these resources it has been able to buy votes though building social projects and giving hand-outs during election campaigns, and to fund other election expenses.
The ruling party has enjoyed all these privileges since there is no anti-corruption mechanism in place to take action against it. Furthermore, the National Election Committee also placed under its control has imposed no limit on donations to political parties and their expenses in elections campaigns. Nor has it verified and made transparent the accounts of all political parties. This system only favors the ruling party.
Last but not least, the police and courts of law which the ruling party also controls have acted more promptly and more diligently in criminal cases in which members of the ruling party are victims and members of opposition parties are suspected offenders than vice versa. Some months prior to the election, they showed only apathy toward reported threats and intimidation of activists of non-ruling parties, destruction of their signboards, and even the killing of some of them.
The system of government and social control which the ruling party has put in place and firmly controls leaves little room for free and fair competition among political parties, or for free choice among the electorate. This largely contributed to the outcome of the election, if it had not already determined it prior to the polling day. It also contributed to producing the irregularities which the four parties have used to claim that that election was manipulated and rigged by the ruling party.
(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)