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Cambodia's Political Future:
Issues for U.S. Policy

Catharin E. Dalpino and David G. Timberman

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The upcoming elections in Cambodia are likely to represent a major turning point, not only for the country's political system, but also for the international community, which has made a sizable investment in the country's economic and political development. The outcome of the elections scheduled for July 26--and the international community's response to them--will have a major bearing on the near- and medium-term prospects for peace and democracy in Cambodia. Cambodia's status in the region and its standing with international financial and development institutions will be affected as well. Moreover, the elections will be a determining factor in future U.S.-Cambodia relations, at least in the short term, which in turn may affect U.S. relations with the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, and China.

The 1991 Paris Peace Accords signaled the end of cold war alliances and alignments in Asia by bringing together the United States, Australia, key European countries, and major powers in the Asia region on both sides of the ideological divide. This new arrangement, although ad hoc, marked a new diplomatic relationship for the majority of the Leninist states of Asia--China, Vietnam, and Laos--with the noncommunist Asian states. Even more remarkable, these three states formally agreed to a process intended to turn Cambodia's Leninist system into a multiparty democracy.

The Paris peace process also underscored a new role for Japan in the region. Through its participation in the Paris Accords, Tokyo moved away from the strict mercantilist approach to foreign assistance it had favored during the cold war to one that incorporated issues of conflict resolution and democratization. This shift was all the more notable for Japan because it occurred in the Asia region, where Tokyo had been most reluctant to intervene in another country's internal affairs. Lastly, the Cambodian peace process underscored a new role for the United Nations in the post-cold war world. The UN was charged not only with maintaining peace in the months immediately following the signing of the Accords but also with organizing and managing the 1993 elections that were to mark Cambodia's transition to a new era.

Recent Developments

With the violent rupture of the ruling coalition last July, Cambodia was plunged into a state of conflict and political uncertainty, from which it has been slow to recover. The coup last summer, and the flight of First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and other elected political leaders, left Second Prime Minister Hun Sen as the head of a de facto one-party state.

However, Hun Sen did not fully anticipate the reaction of the international community. ASEAN postponed the planned invitation for Cambodia to join the regional grouping, making it the only Southeast Asian nation to be excluded from ASEAN membership. Moreover, ASEAN formed an ad hoc "troika," comprised of the foreign ministers of Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to launch a diplomatic initiative intended, first, to persuade Hun Sen to reconcile with Ranariddh and, more recently, to hold free and fair elections. In spirit this initiative broke precedent with the long-standing ASEAN principle of noninterference in a member country's affairs, although Cambodia was not technically a member.

The crisis has also brought into being the "Friends of Cambodia," an informal diplomatic group comprised of powers that had been key players in the Paris Accords, including the United States, Australia, Canada, China, the European Union (EU), Japan, and Russia. Both ASEAN, through the troika, and the Friends of Cambodia have stressed to Hun Sen the importance of creating and maintaining a neutral political environment in Cambodia for free, fair, and credible elections.

In response to the July events, several Western donors withdrew their bilateral assistance to the Cambodian government, although some have continued to provide aid to the nongovernmental sector. With strong U.S. urging, international financial institutions suspended loans to Cambodia and, in what was possibly the greatest blow to Hun Sen, persuaded the UN to leave Cambodia's seat vacant at the opening of the General Assembly in October.

Hun Sen's reaction was to downplay the actions of his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and attempt to shift blame to Ranariddh for the July events. He charged that his former coalition partner had committed a number of crimes, including the importation of arms for the purpose of launching a coup and aligning his forces with the Khmer Rouge. To single out Ranariddh and his leading military advisors, Hun Sen insisted that the ruling coalition be continued, at least cosmetically. Ung Huot, the foreign minister, was subsequently given what was now the symbolic role of co-prime minister. The switch also served to divide Ranariddh's party, FUNCINPEC, and to create public confusion over whether the "real" party was headed by Ranariddh or Ung Huot.

Despite low-level skirmishes between opposition armies and Hun Sen's forces, by spring some opposition politicians, such as Sam Rainsy of the Khmer Nation Party, began returning to Phnom Penh to test the political waters. At that time the Japanese government proposed a complicated formula to enable Ranariddh to return, which was eventually accepted. Ranariddh was tried in absentia for the crimes of which he was accused, found guilty, and subsequently pardoned by his father, King Sihanouk. Although Ranariddh has returned briefly to Cambodia on occasion, the Hun Sen government maintains that the conditions of the Japanese formula have not been fully met, since they also require a cease-fire agreement. In an additional complication, Ranariddh requested that his top military leaders, who also had been accused of crimes by Hun Sen, receive royal pardons as well. Thus far, the mercurial king, who has vacillated in his support for his son's cause, has declined to grant his son's request.

The Lead-Up to Elections

Elections are scheduled for July 26, but the willingness and ability of the government to conduct them credibly is in doubt. Opposition leaders, primarily Ranariddh and Rainsy, publicly hold out the possibility of boycotting the polls. Some months ago, the National Election Commission, which the opposition perceives to be strongly weighted toward Hun Sen, despite the membership of a prominent human rights activist, was appointed. Beyond the issue of political coloration, there are widespread doubts that the commission can handle the logistical challenge of managing elections in a few short months. Both the UN and the EU have agreed in principle to support the elections but reserve the right to withdraw their agreement if conditions warrant.

In this environment a number of questions remain about the path to elections and whether they indeed can be free and fair, assuming they are held at all. These questions also raise policy issues for the United States and other actors in the international community, relating not only to the elections but also to relations with the government and people of Cambodia following the elections. Once again, as they were in 1993, elections are expected to resolve an internal conflict and to legitimize the winner (or winners) through the ballot box. This task, which fell tragically short of its aim the first time, is all the more difficult because these elections are Cambodia's first attempt to manage democratic elections in the post-Paris Accords era.

Timing of the Elections. The issue at hand is whether July 26 is a plausible date for elections to be held. Even at this relatively late stage, some in the international community have urged that they be postponed to the fall. Advocates for delay argue that the opposition will have insufficient time to organize and campaign for July polls, given the fact that many of them have only recently returned. Without sufficient preparation time and support, opposition parties will find themselves to be mere players in a "demonstration election," designed to legitimize Hun Sen's rule.

They further argue that the election commission is too disorganized to conduct elections in such a short time frame. Even if international assistance is provided, it is unlikely that they would go smoothly. Very little, if any, of the electoral infrastructure created by the UN for the 1993 elections remains. Unresolved issues about voter registration increase the potential for disenfranchisement and fraud.

Opponents of delay argue, perhaps cynically, that postponement to the fall will not change the essential political dynamic, which favors continued Hun Sen control, and that it is better to get past the elections as soon as possible. Moreover they doubt that Hun Sen can be held to a long-term election schedule. In addition the term of the National Assembly is scheduled to expire in September. Given the daily chaos of political life in Cambodia, some question whether it is wise to invite further disruption by leaving Cambodia without a legislature.

In examining the question of timing, it is necessary as well to look to events and actors outside Cambodia. The issue of Cambodia's status with ASEAN has remained open through the year, but some question whether the association will continue its relatively hard-line position as its annual meeting approaches in July. International cohesion on lending from international financial institutions may begin to crumble as well, particularly if there is a perception that the poorer segments of Cambodian society, rather than Hun Sen and the CPP, are the ones bearing the brunt of these sanctions. Lastly, the question of the vacant UN seat continues to weigh upon the issue of timing. If Hun Sen is agreeable to July elections, but the Western donors are not, he may gain support from some countries, such as China, for the return of Cambodia's seat to his government when the General Assembly opens this October.

Competition: Who and How Much? It is a norm of international politics in the post-cold war era that governments are not supposed to express a preference for a particular candidate or party in other countries' elections. Foreign governments may focus their attention on the integrity of the electoral democratic process, but they should not take an official position on the outcome. However, given the events of last July and the probability that a "level playing field" will not be possible in the elections of this July, the United States and some other members of the international community find it difficult to be disinterested in the outcome of the Cambodian elections. Regardless of the technical or legal details, it will be hard to sanction an election in which the most prominent opposition leaders--primarily Ranariddh and Rainsy--are prevented from mounting genuine campaigns or choose to boycott. (It should not be assumed, however, that the participation of one or both of the opposition parties will automatically produce a free and fair election or that the two opposition camps will join forces or mount effective campaigns.) And given the forcible ouster of Ranariddh last July, some may have difficulty accepting an outcome that does not result in a major role for the opposition in the post-election political order.

In response to this dilemma, the U.S. government has taken a two-tiered approach to the Cambodian elections. In the U.S. view, for the upcoming elections to be credible, the main opposition leaders must be able to compete. But for the elections to be considered free and fair, the campaign period must be reasonably free of manipulation and intimidation, the polls must be conducted in a competent and neutral manner, and the parties must honor the outcome.

At this juncture elections that are nominally credible remain a possibility, but the prospects for genuinely free and fair elections look dim, in large part because of the thorough politicization of Cambodia's government apparatus. The CPP dominates the bureaucracy and security forces and has effectively censored the media. While opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and journalists are, in theory, free to challenge the government, they do so at their own peril. In addition the opposition is disorganized and itself factionalized. Although it would be difficult for any political group to overcome the obstacles presented by the CPP machinery, it will be even more difficult if the opposition doesn't come together.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that although Hun Sen seems intent on using whatever means necessary to remain in power, it is also in his interest to ensure that the elections take place and appear competitive. He needs the international community--particularly ASEAN and Japan--to accept and validate the elections. Without this, it will be much harder for his government to join ASEAN and reclaim its position in the international community.

In the likely event that Hun Sen wins in a fraudulent or boycotted election, the United States and other international actors will be forced to determine under what, if any, conditions they would consider a Hun Sen victory to be acceptable. Thus, the current U.S. framework for the elections almost inevitably will put the U.S. government in the difficult position of having to weigh its long-standing commitment to democratic processes in Cambodia against its future relations with the Hun Sen government.

The Role of the International Community. The upcoming elections in Cambodia stand in stark contrast to the elections of 1993. The transitional elections emerging out of the peace process were organized and conducted by the international community through the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC). UN forces provided some degree of security, which was important not only to guard against voter intimidation but also because of the failure to keep the Khmer Rouge in the peace process. UNTAC also provided media, through a national radio service, which conducted voter education programs and encouraged a large turnout. Perhaps most important, UNTAC fielded election observers who could not only assess whether the voting process was fair but also contribute to the credibility and security of the polls.

It is difficult to say at this time the extent to which the international community will be involved in the July elections. However, it is certain that the conditions of 1993 cannot, and will not, be replicated. A new electoral infrastructure must be organized, if not also provided, by the government. At this point significant questions of political will to provide a neutral environment have been raised as well as those of logistical capacity and funding. In the latter regard, in a recent statement the Friends of Cambodia alluded to technical assistance for the elections, assuming the conditions of a free and fair environment are met. No authority has been designated, however, to determine whether and when those conditions are met.

The government has officially requested that the UN coordinate international observers for the elections, although the UN has thus far not been ceded a formal role in certifying whether the elections are free and fair. To date the UN has provided Cambodia with human rights monitors, but their numbers are not sufficient to offer comprehensive protection or even a complete survey of conditions. If the international community becomes more deeply involved in the elections, this cadre of human rights monitors is likely to increase, although questions still remain about what would constitute a critical mass.

One encouraging difference between 1993 and 1998, however, is the presence of a respectable nongovernmental sector in Cambodia, assisted by the United States and other major donors. This is one--and some would say the only--success story in democracy building in Cambodia to date. Cambodian NGOs cover a range of issues and functions, from delivery of social services to human rights monitoring. Some have the willingness, if not the financial support at this time, to assume watchdog roles during the election. U.S. assistance to Cambodian NGOs continued after official aid to the government was cut off last July, and some of that support is now focused on helping NGOs to monitor the elections.

Under the present circumstances, however, Cambodian NGOs cannot be expected to take complete responsibility for monitoring the elections, for reasons of both capacity and security. The UN, the United States, and other international actors must consider whether to supplement (and help protect) Cambodian efforts at election monitoring with international observers. In a statement issued in late April, the ASEAN troika announced that ASEAN countries will field elections monitors. This official position represents another watershed for ASEAN, although it is unlikely that all the ASEAN countries (particularly Vietnam, Laos, and Burma) will provide monitors or that the association will take a position on the fairness of elections en bloc. Across the board, issues of security for monitors remain unresolved and are likely to influence the ability of foreign and Cambodian groups to attract observers.

The question of foreign assistance to help Cambodia's political parties mount their campaigns is also problematic. While it is not unusual for the United States and other international donors to try to "level the playing field" by giving preferential assistance to struggling democratic parties, most of the time party-building assistance is supposed to be multipartisan. Clearly, no U.S. government assistance can or will be provided to the CPP, and absent this, large-scale and visible foreign assistance to opposition parties is sure to raise Hun Sen's hackles. This may cause him to counteract such assistance with an increased show of force, or even to charge that the elections cannot be credible contests with such outside interference. Therefore, it is unlikely that the opposition parties will receive significant amounts of foreign assistance.

The Khmer Rouge: A Continuing Complication. Five years after Cambodia's transition from civil war to uneasy peace, the Khmer Rouge is still a factor in the national equation. However, the practice of isolating it from the new political system, and from the benefits of international assistance, has clearly begun to bear fruit. By the summer of 1996 almost half the Khmer Rouge military force broke from Pol Pot and defected to the government. The following year the faction's leadership broke into bitter dispute, eventually causing Ta Mok, the guerrilla commander, to arrest Pol Pot. Khmer Rouge unity deteriorated further when a significant portion of the remaining fighting force mutinied and defected this past March. Although Ta Mok remains at large with an estimated 1,600 troops, the backbone of the Khmer Rouge has been broken, and it no longer poses a major threat to security.

The Khmer Rouge can, however, affect the short-term political situation in Cambodia in two ways. Despite the death of Pol Pot and a recent attempt by the remaining leaders to sue for peace, its lingering presence gives the government a rationale for maintaining a counterinsurgency campaign and a continued role for the armed forces in domestic security. The means for voter intimidation are more readily available under these conditions. And since the factions were not demilitarized during the peace process earlier in the decade, the possibility remains of using the armed forces against political enemies other than the Khmer Rouge. Second, reintegrating the Khmer Rouge into Cambodian society will continue to be a delicate political problem. The manner in which high-ranking political and military leaders who wish to defect are handled, either through amnesty or accountability, could leave leaders open to the charge of complicity in some cases. Mass defections of mid- and low-level troops are a boon to the government; the disposition of the higher levels, particularly those involved in the genocide of the 1970s, could be a burden and even a danger.

Election Outcomes and Official Relations: Immediate Issues

It has become a truism that elections alone don't make a democracy. In this instance, however, they may determine U.S. and other countries' policy toward Cambodia, at least in the short run. The recognition of Cambodia's government by other countries and ultimately by the international community through the UN will be heavily influenced by the elections. Cambodia's status in the region, and its standing with international financial and development institutions will be affected as well. But if no central authority, such as the UN, is responsible for certifying whether the elections are free and fair, the international community could become sharply divided on Cambodia. However, certification--or even an informal assessment of an election's outcome--implies a network of observers to produce credible data. This also requires agreement on the standards for determining if an election is free. It is increasingly unlikely that a consensus on criteria will be in place for the forthcoming elections.

It is difficult, and unwise, to predicate policy on assumptions about the outcomes of elections. Doing so may not only leave policymakers off balance when events take a different turn but can invite self-fulfilling prophecies. However, with so little time until the scheduled July elections, there is a widespread impression that a victory for the incumbent, individually or as the major party in a coalition, is likely if not inevitable. The response of the international community to that development, if it comes to pass, will depend on the degree to which elections are judged free or fair.

A strong opposition showing, leading to another coalition government, cannot be ruled out, in theory at least. FUNCINPEC won the 1993 elections with 58 seats in the National Assembly to the CPP's 51. However, the 1993 election was conducted under winner-take-all rules. The Cambodian Constitution now calls for a government to be formed by parties that win 75 percent of National Assembly seats, increasing the chances of coalition government. Moreover, the ultimate outcome of the 1993 elections, a forced coalition with the CPP when Hun Sen refused to accept the results, serves as a strong reminder that the concept of a loyal opposition in Cambodia is weak.

It is possible therefore that the international community will be faced with the prospect of recognizing a coalition government in Cambodia after the elections. This could happen through elections, force, or back-room deals. The spectrum of possibilities ranges from a coalition with the CPP as the accepted leader to one in which Hun Sen has taken a central role by force. It is also possible that the opposition will splinter, with some part entering into a coalition. Having all or part of the opposition in exile is also a possibility. These scenarios are made all the more difficult by the fact that some parties are considered to be shadows or fronts for the CPP. Thus, the degree of actual competition may be overestimated. A coalition arrangement would make recognition of the new government easier to some and harder for others.

If elections in Cambodia are boycotted or perceived to be fraudulent, the United States and other international actors will have three policy options to consider. The first would be to accept the outcome, adjust fundamental perceptions of Cambodia, and adopt a new, far less hopeful, view of the country. The image of Cambodia as a fledgling democracy that needs to be guided, or forced, back onto a democratic track might then give way to one on the opposite end of the spectrum: Cambodia as an Asian Leninist country, similar to some of its neighbors, which may be amenable to closer contacts with the West, and to a gradual process of liberalization, but makes no immediate promises of democratization. Given the considerable investment in Cambodia's democracy made by the international community, this would be an extremely difficult paradigm and policy shift. It would also represent the effective abandonment of the 1991 Paris Accords.

A second option would be for the United States and the international community to apply intense pressure to set aside the elections. Under this scenario, the Hun Sen government would either agree to reschedule them, possibly under international supervision, or yield power to an interim caretaker government. However, two elements are required for this strategy to work, neither of which may be present in Cambodia. First, the international community must have some base of tangible evidence upon which to claim that elections were manipulated. Second, international cohesion, resolve, and action would be required to bring sufficient pressure to bear upon the incumbent.

A third strategy, should elections be undemocratic, would be to withhold recognition from the government that results from them. This has serious consequences for bilateral relations--in fact, it stops them altogether. In weighing this option, the United States should take into account that it is likely to be one of the few, if not the only, government to opt for a rupture. However, a number of less absolute policy instruments can be applied to express disapproval. These include downgrading diplomatic representation, usually by recalling the ambassador and leaving the embassy in the hands of a charge; voting against loans to that country in international financial institutions; imposing broad or targeted sanctions, unilaterally or multilaterally; and seeking censure in international forums.

Just as diplomatic relations can be tailored to the outcome of the elections, so can bilateral assistance programs. If elections in Cambodia are widely seen to be fraudulent, there is likely to be a strong current in the U.S. policy community to continue suspending, or even to terminate, U.S. assistance to the government. In post-cold war assistance programs, however, aid is usually balanced between government institutions and nongovernmental organizations, as it was in Cambodia prior to the events of last July. This leaves open the possibility of continuing assistance to Cambodian NGOs to strengthen civil society, most likely through American NGOs working in the country. Since NGOs are often providers of social services, this could be one means of providing assistance to address Cambodia's numerous socioeconomic development needs. Large infrastructure projects, however, would not be likely under this scenario. Nor would de-mining projects, which continue to be crucial to the safety of Cambodians, be possible by working through NGOs.

Looking Beyond the Elections

Even if the July elections are free and fair, and a democratically elected government assumes power, democracy in Cambodia will by no means be secure. The international community should pause for only a brief moment of celebration before turning to address Cambodia's midterm challenges to continued democratic progress. In addition to strengthening the country's democratic institutions, with particular attention to creating checks and balances, two major challenges lie ahead.

The first is the need for the true establishment and function of democratic political institutions. Democratically elected governments must be able to carry out their terms without violent interruption, and institutions such as the National Assembly must be allowed to perform the functions prescribed for them in the constitution. In less formal terms this includes the need for Cambodia's political leaders to share power. From its inception in 1993 the FUNCINPEC/CPP coalition showed fault lines that could only widen. The practice of assigning two ministers, one FUNCINPEC and one CPP, to each ministry was a signal that the bureaucracy would be deeply factionalized. Decision making was more difficult and the possibility of corruption doubled. Most important, division between the two coalition partners was institutionalized, inviting rupture at the first opportunity.

A corollary to a stronger ethic of genuine power sharing is the need for greater tolerance for pluralistic politics, particularly for opposition political parties. Cambodia's history of colonialism, monarchy, and communism makes this a difficult concept for many in the Cambodian ruling elite. But building institutions and norms that allow for pluralistic politics and genuine political opposition may be the only way to ensure peace and progress in Cambodia.

Helping democratic institutions to take root, and altering Cambodian political culture as a result, will require broad-based agreement on the "rules of the game." In democratizing societies, this usually comes through trial and error, through movement forward and some backsliding. Institutions designed to uphold the rule of law, such as the newly established Constitutional Council, will be particularly important in this process. Given Cambodia's intensely factional political environment, however, and its continuing internal conflict, a more deliberate effort may be needed, sooner rather than later. Immediately following the July elections, the international donor community might consider urging the next Cambodian government to convene an all-parties conference. The objective of such a meeting would be to get all parties to agree to a code of conduct and to commit to a program of action for maintaining peace, respecting the rule of law, protecting civil society, and reforming government.

The second major challenge in Cambodia's midterm is the need to address the politicized nature of the armed forces and profound problems in civil-military relations. The greatest shortcoming of the UNTAC period was the failure to demobilize the factions and depoliticize the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Two actively partisan armies, barely coexisting under the thin veneer of a national military, were left intact. In the post-UNTAC period, this situation became a blind spot for the international community, which is often prone to confusing conflict resolution and democratization. This lack of clarification, and resolution, helped to set Cambodia up for the events of last July.

It is highly unlikely that this situation can be addressed, much less remedied, as long as political tensions in Cambodia remain high. And, as with the need to stabilize the political situation and find consensus on rules of political conduct, it is an area that is extremely sensitive and usually off-limits to external actors. However, where and when there is political will in Cambodia to address these and other issues of democratic development, the international community should offer its support to the fullest extent.
SAIS/Asia Society Cambodia Policy Study Group

March 26, 1998


Morton Abramowitz
Council on Foreign Relations
Study Group Chair

Carolyn Bartholemew
Office of Congresswoman Pelosi

Sheila Berry
Department of State

Richard Blue
Center for Law and Development

Ellen Bork
Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Peter Brookes
House Committee on International Relations

Fred Brown
SAIS

Michael Carns
Center for International Political Economy

Steven Coffey
Department of State

Charles Costello
USAID

Patrick Cronin
USIP

Lorne Craner
International Republican Institute

Barbara Crossette
New York Times

Jeffrey Crouse
International Republican Institute

Catharin Dalpino
Brookings Institution
Study Group Co-Director

Michael Doyle
Princeton University

Craig Etcheson
Yale University

Mark Fierstein
USAID

Richard Fisher
Heritage Foundation

Nicholas Hayes
ICG Consulting

Fred Hiatt
Washington Post

Marie Huhtala
Department of State

Karl Jackson
SAIS

Mike Jendrzejczyk
Human Rights Watch/Asia

Rudi Jeung
Asia Foundation

Richard Kessler
House Committee on International Relations
Shep Lowman
Refugees International


James Mann
Los Angeles Times

John McAuliff
USIRP

Stephen Morris
SAIS

Kevin F. F. Quigley
Asia Society

Lionel Rosenblatt
Refugees International

Al Santoli
Office of Congressman Rohrabacher

Sichan Siv
ICG Consulting

Stephen Solarz
George Washington University

Lewis Stern
Department of Defense

David Timberman
SAIS/Asia Society
Study Group Co-Director

Naranhkiri Tith
SAIS/IMF

Ken Wollack
National Democratic Institute

David Yang
Department of State

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