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Cambodia: Analysis From Washington - Monitoring Elections, Building Democracy

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International efforts to promote free and fair elections have contributed to the development of democracy in many places that have never known it.

But by focusing on the mechanics of voting and evaluating a country's progress toward democracy on the basis of that measure alone, these efforts sometimes can undermine popular support for democracy and thus make the transition to it more difficult rather than less.

That unexpected outcome appears to have been the case in Cambodia where foreign observers proclaimed the recent elections to be "free and fair" and thus certified the outcome as democratic. But the problems highlighted there certainly exist elsewhere as well.

After more than 30 years of war, Cambodia conducted elections for a new parliament on 26 July. The numerous foreign observers who descended on the country pronounced themselves pleased with the way in which the voting took place.

Some even described the election as "a miracle."

But many Cambodians and diplomats long resident in that country felt that the certification of these elections as free and fair made a mockery of the very thing -- democracy -- that the observers claimed to be promoting.

Cambodians were particularly critical. On the one hand, they suggested that the voting itself was considerably less free and fair than the outside observers had claimed. And on the other, they pointed out that this had led some in their country to conclude that elections are a sham.

In the period leading up to the election, supporters of incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen had sent a clear signal to a population that is more than 60 percent illiterate on how the government expected them to vote.

On election day, these same people were the ones who operated the polling stations, allowing them to invalidate ballots cast for opposition candidates and to cast pre-marked ballots for candidates supporting Hun Sen.

Not surprisingly in the Cambodian case and typical of many elections in such circumstances, the incumbent Hun Sen won, an outcome many observers suggested would promote democracy but might not help democracy.

Indeed, many Cambodians told Western journalists that the election was simply "a tool" to allow the incumbent regime to remain in power rather than a means to allow the people to rule themselves.

And these same Cambodians indicated that they might not vote again in any future round since the elections do not appear to make any difference in either the people in power or in their lives.

One diplomat in Phnom Penh was even more critical. He told the New York Times that the process of international certification of elections as free and fair could have a very negative impact on political developments in Cambodia.

"It is incredibly disingenuous and intellectually dishonest as well as possibly immoral for the international community to come in here and say, 'O.K., you have democracy,'" the diplomat said, "when the reality on the ground is much different."

Part of the problem in Cambodia as well as in other countries lacking any recent experience with democracy is that the international community tends to focus on the voting itself rather than on the broader electoral process.

By coming in only a few days or at most weeks before the election, these monitors sometimes do not track the ways in which incumbents are able to exploit their positions even if they allow the voting to take place in a way that passes muster with the international community.

And then as soon as the voting occurs, the monitors render their judgment and then they depart, often leaving the population to face the same people in power they faced before.

That is a reality many leaders in these countries fully appreciate. It is also one that ever more of their populations understand. And most important, it is a reality that may prove to be one of the biggest obstacles to building democracy, even if voting there is "free and fair."