PR hits Cambodia

Against all expectations Cambodia had a highly successful electoral process this year. Some 98% of the eligible population attended the 11,500 bureaux across the country in order to register - 5.4 million of them registered over a four week period - and over 90% of those registered turned out and voted on 26 July. Such was the sophistication of the voters that the three main parties polled 88% and the remaining 36 parties just 12% between them. The five hundred international observers, and, much more importantly, the 12,000 local observers pronounced themselves generally satisfied with the registration, the electoral process and the count.

Why then, more than four weeks later, has the National Assembly not been summoned, and why is there still no accepted Government?

No state institutions
Cambodia is not a country which as yet has a widespread civil society or a plethora of neutral political institutions. Essentially the security forces, the courts, the civil service and the media are all dominated by the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and, although this was less apparent during the one month period of the official election campaign, the opposition - the royalist FUNCINPEC party and the eponymous Sam Rainsy party - voiced their concerns about intimidation by the CPP dominated local administration. They also complained about their lack of news coverage on the electronic media - radio is by far the most pervasive medium in the country. These were by way of being pre-emptive strikes in the event of there being low registration and polling turnout. In the event both were massive, which somewhat muted the protests.

To remove one possibility of intimidation the NEC persuaded the Government to have the count conducted at Commune level rather than at each polling station. This involved the votes from at least three polling stations being mixed at the 1595 Communes in order to make it impossible to know officially how each village voted. However, an unanticipated problem arose in that party observers at the Commune level were unable to monitor closely all the counts taking place simultaneously. Inevitably, in a country which is a massive rumour factory, this gave rise to allegations of ballot rigging. A few recounts have taken place and these showed virtually no difference from the declared figures. This, alas, has not deterred the opposition parties from demanding hundreds of further recounts, which have been refused by the NEC and by the Constitutional Council. Frankly I doubt very much that there was any serious manipulation of the count: there was neither any will to organise the huge operation required to make it electorally effective, nor the possibility of the massive deception necessary.

Sainte Laguë or D'Hondt?
Far more serious, however, is the total mess over the allocation of seats to the parties. The electoral system provides for closed party lists in each of the 23 provinces but the electoral law itself failed to spell out the method for allocation of seats to parties. Liberator readers will all, no doubt, unlike 99% of Cambodians, be familiar with the names D'Hondt and Sainte Laguë. These are two methods of calculating the "highest average" by which up to one third of the seats had to be allocated. Sainte Laguë tends to be kinder to smaller parties, and D'Hondt tends to give a bonus to the leading party in each province. Early last May the NEC adopted a version of Sainte Laguë and published the appropriate regulations. By the end of May, without, apparently, any formal discussion or decision, a second, D'Hondt, formula was published by the NEC.

Like myself, everyone had a copy of one version or the other and had no knowledge of the existence of the other. It was therefore only when, days after the poll, expert predictions of seats won by the parties were substantially different, that the awful truth was discovered. The impact in seats is crucial - a simple majority or not, 59 or 64 of the 120 seats, for the CPP - so neither side will concede, and the protests continue in a highly volatile atmosphere.

Constitutional Blackmail
The situation is further complicated in that the Paris Accords of 1991 insisted that the new Constitution included a provision that a two-thirds majority of the whole National Assembly is required to approve the formation of a government. Thus a renewal of the coalition between the CPP and the royalist FUNCINPEC party - fractured in the CPP coup in July 1997 - is necessary for the crucial next step. The Sam Rainsy party does not have enough seats to create a coalition giving two-thirds of the Assembly. Effectively therefore FUNCINPEC has a veto, which it is exercising to try to insist on the allocation system more advantageous to it. And there the impasse currently rests! As a colleague remarked: "Les pauvres cambodgiens"! I return there in October!

In 1997 Michael Meadowcroft was consultant to the major pro-democracy NGO, the Cambodian Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL). This year he headed the European Commission's Technical Assistance Mission which underpinned the voter registration process. The views expressed here are entirely his own and in no way necessarily represent the EC or COMFREL.

September 1998