Cambodia's agony as the bullets fly

Between October 1991 and May 1993 over $2 billion of public money was spent by the United Nations to produce legitimate elections and a democratic government in Cambodia. Today, just over four years later, the elected First Prime Minister and leader of the largest party (FUNCINPEC) is threatened with arrest if he returns to Cambodia; leading figures from that party have been executed by soldiers loyal to Hun Sen, the Second Prime Minister; Hun Sen has installed unconstitutionally a replacement First Prime Minister at a session of the National Assembly at which twenty-one deputies - mainly key FUNCINPEC members - were absent, having fled the country to escape Hun Sen's coup of 5 July; the main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, who, at a party demonstration in Phnom Penh, suffered a grenade attack which left at least sixteen dead and over one hundred injured, is also unable to return to Cambodia; and fighting between the two main parties' troops is still continuing in the north of the country.

Meanwhile the municipal elections planned for next December have been cancelled, but the National Assembly elections due next year have been scheduled for 23 May. The donor countries, ie basically the EU fifteen, North America, Australia and Japan, are thus faced with the huge problem of how to lever sufficient deliverable guarantees on security, freedom to campaign, an independent electoral commission, evenhanded administration, media access and other key components of a democratic electoral process, to give sufficient expectation of a reasonably acceptable election - much of which they will have to pay for.

The Cambodian situation is only the latest, though probably the most acute, example of the dashing of the high hopes of global development and entrenchment of democracy over the past decade. As such the lessons need to be noted and acted upon in the hope that the faults can then be avoided elsewhere.

The initial naivety of western politicians was understandable. Elections for their public bodies were regular, their administration was largely value free, and their results invariably accepted. Though no election is fully "free and fair" - among other things, the candidates' differential access to finance and to the media prevents it being achieved - the electoral process was taken for granted as being the machinery by which citizens determine how they will be governed. And so it can be, as long as the main competing political forces are based on broad attitudes on the nature of society and the role of the economy. As soon as a party committed to nationalism or to a fundamentalist view of governance uses the electoral process to demonstrate its strength, then elections become divisive rather than consensual. Elections can still be valuable in enabling constitutional changes to take place peacefully, but the emphasis on their role in peace making and peace building, as promulgated by the former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his key policy statement Agenda for Peace, does then take somewhat of a bashing.

The 1918 election in the United Kingdom demonstrated the impossibility of maintaining Ireland within the Union and, as such, was extremely divisive. The fact that Sinn Fein won sixty-eight of the seventy-one seats in the twenty-six counties now in the Republic of Ireland, but only three of the twenty-nine in the six Northern Ireland counties arguably gave a great impetus to partition. By contrast the Algerian authorities cancelled the second round of the 1992 elections when it was clear that the fundamentalist FIS party was likely to win a majority, with the consequence that, denied an electoral outlet, conflict rages and Algeria is today one of the world's most dangerous countries. The unity of India, the world's largest democracy, is threatened by the strength of the Hindu party, the BJP, and parties based on ethnic or nationalist groups are commonplace in the new democracies.

What is it, then, that is required for a successful democracy? First, it is the existence of at least a semblance of civil society and of accepted political institutions. We in the west take civil society for granted and, even despite the predations of the Thatcher years, it is still remarkably strong. The range and diversity of voluntary bodies, large and small, geographically or subject based, is remarkable. It is still accepted that each of us is entitled to have some influence on our workplace, our children's schools, our housing estate, our health service, our environment, or our arts, and we have a kaleidoscope of statutory and voluntary organisations, from school governors to parent teacher associations, and from Community Health Councils to pressure groups for every conceivable disability.

The democratic process depends on this diverse and intricate structure - what Richard Wainwright used to call the "warp and the weft" of society - and it is virtually non-existent in most of the new democracies. In Phnom Penh those responsible for the Cambodian Co-ordinating Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are very proud of the fact that they have now got two hundred members across the country. It is indeed quite an achievement but I recall that, in my time as head of the Bradford Council for Voluntary Service, we had five hundred members in that city alone. The culture of the former communist countries was also inimical to civil society. The party controlled every significant aspect of its subjects' lives and even today, eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is very difficult to get those in Central and Eastern European countries to realise that it is possible for groups of citizens to get together informally, with a democratic constitution, to participate in the governance of local, regional and national institutions. But without a democratic culture that permeates each level of an individual's daily life, parliamentary elections every four years or so are simply froth. Elections are the effect rather than the cause of democracy. Even the Republican Senator John McCain noted recently that "the lesson is that it's more than an election that makes a democracy."

Second, successful elections also depend on the existence of political institutions. In Cambodia there are very few non-partisan institutions at all. Virtually all the civil service, the military, the judicial system, and the media are under the control of one or other political party. And, since the 5 July coup, those that remain are overwhelmingly controlled by Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party, the successor to the communist party of the post Khmer Rouge era. How, then, can there be an electoral process - let alone a democratic one - when the means to administer, control, and check it simply do not exist? The lack of broad based political parties, with their own internal democratic structures, also undermines the democratic processes. All too often parties are based on a tribe, a religion, a charismatic leader, or an ethnic group, rather than on a view of society, and are incapable of bringing stability and security, or even a coherent government strategy, to their country.

Third, assistance for the transition to democracy needs to extend to the newly elected legislature. It is crazy to say on polling day "goodbye - you're democratic now", when most, if not all, of those elected have never previously sat in any elected body. No wonder it all too often falls apart. Having worked intensively before the election with many of those then elected it is quite natural and easy to continue after the election to work with them on parliamentary processes, party discipline, constituency casework, the role of opposition, the "usual channels", the work of whips, etc. Alas, even having spent $2 billion dollars in Cambodia to get to polling day, there was no will to continue to assist the newly elected National Assembly, with the consequences we see today.

The lessons of the past eight years of work with new and emerging democracies are increasingly clear. It is not yet clear that the western democracies are prepared to heed them.

25 August 1997