Factions, UNTAC Debate Electoral Law

Factions, UNTAC Debate Electoral Law

Fri, 10 July 1992
Kampong Trach, by Jacek Piwowarczyk 1993

Kampong Trach, by Jacek Piwowarczyk 1993

In the absence of electoral guidelines from UNTAC and setbacks in launching Phase II of the cease-fire, political parties in Cambodia have been cautious about actively campaigning.

A law setting the legal framework for next year’s general elections has been under review by the Supreme NationalCouncil (SNC) for more than three months.

While the SNC has resolved some issues-agreeing that no party may use Sihanouk’s portrait or Angkor Wat as campaign logos and outlining mechanisms for overseas Khmer to vote-members continue to debate with UNTAC whether Vietnamese people living in Cambodia should be allowed to cast ballots.

As far as UNTAC is concerned, that issue was settled last October by the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, where the Cambodian parties agreed on two criteria qualifying a person to vote: being able to show the person was born in Cambodia, or born of a parent who was born in Cambodia.

“There’s a strong push now to insert Cambodian citizenship or nationality [as a criteria for voting]-a radical modification from the Paris Accords,” said UNTAC Special Representative Yasushi Akashi. “We have to refrain from creating racial undertones to such a matter.”

Some members of the SNC say UNTAC is ignoring the reality of Cambodian history. “The Vietnamese presence in Cambodia is a problem-a cause of the war,” said SNC member Ieng Mouly, vice president of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) – formerly the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front.

“In the future we will accept multi-racial [registration],” Mouly said. “The first election is very important. We have to get our country back from foreign occupation-the Vietnamese especially -to elect a constituent assembly and build up a regime for Cambodia.”

FUNCINPEC and Khmer Rouge representatives similarly advocate the exclusion of Vietnamese residents in the election. “It’s history,” said Veng Sereyvuth, FUNCINPEC foreign affairs advisor and staff to the SNC secretariat. “We just cannot mix with these people. The Vietnamese are warmongers.”

SNC Member Khieu Samphan, president of the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) party, said in a June 10 statement on the electoral law: “At stake here is the issue of a ‘Cambodian’ Cambodia, and not a ‘Vietnamized’ Cambodia where foreigners were to be given the right to take part in the elections.”

Differentiating Cambodians from other ethnic groups living in Cambodia-some of whom have lived here for generations-not only injects racial criteria into voter registration, UNTAC says, but is virtually impossible to achieve. Decades of warfare have displaced many people from their original home provinces and caused the destruction of most birth records, making it difficult to verify Cambodian nationality.

Nonetheless, UNTAC Electoral Component Chief Reginald Austin is confident that mechanisms and courses of appeal have been built into the electoral process to insure that “palpably unqualified” people don’t flood the voter registration rolls, or that those who are qualified aren’t excluded.

Those lacking documentation can be registered if two other registered voters can swear the person was born in Cambodia, Austin said. Additionally, agents from the different political parties are entitled to observe any voter registration and challenge it at several points in the process.

Whether consensus is achieved on these issues or not, UNTAC will have to take steps soon to implement the electoral law, Austin said.

“The law has to move within the next few weeks if possible,” he said. “There are a whole lot of procedural processes that have to be prepared for. We have to design and print millions of forms, for example, and train the people and the parties about the law.”

The final say on the matter, Austin added, is up to Akashi.

“This is clearly spelled out in the Paris Agreement,” Austin said. “The process of consultation with the SNC is one he has chosen to go through. “But at some point-hopefully quite soon-Akashi will decide he can now legislate in whatever form he thinks is proper.”

Electoral Machine

With elections set for April or May 1993, registration must begin soon. Under the supervision of U.N. election coordinators, 4,000 Khmer nationals will work as registration officials at 800 registration points throughout the country during the three-month voter registration period slated to begin in October.

A smooth logistical operation will be required to move an average of 50,000 registration cards a day out of district offices to Phnom Penh, where they will be entered into a computer system with specially developed bilingual Khmer-English software. The lists of voters will then go back to districts for public scrutiny and verification.

The formal campaign period, projected to begin in March, 1993 and continue for roughly six weeks, will take place after the registration of voters and political parties is completed.

For the actual polling, 48,000 Khmer nationals as well as 1,000 senior U.N. officials will staff polling stations set up throughout the country.

Already, 11 regional election coordinators are out in the provinces mapping the locations and verifying the names of villages.

“We’re trying to put in place an electoral machine,” Austin said. “We need to set up a system which gives a credible registration of all Cambodians qualified to vote, and then insure an efficient delivery of the vote to every person on election day-ideally within a period of 12 hours on one day.

“An election is like a battle,” Austin said. “On the day of the battle everyone must have a gun pointed in the right direction; everyone must have the ability and right to vote.”

Members of the non-incumbent parties say that the absence of electoral guidelines and the full deployment of UNTAC to date has hampered their outreach efforts in the provinces, and has opened the door to harassment of their members by State of Cambodia (SOC) police and officials.

According to Sereyvuth, on May 26, SOC police raided a house FUNCINPEC had rented in preparation for opening an office in Battambang. “SOC comes in during the middle of the night-25 people with guns-and took all our people and told the owner of the house they cannot rent to FUNCINPEC,” Sereyvuth said.

FUNCINPEC protested to UNTAC, prompting a letter to Hun Sen from UNTAC Deputy Special Representative Behrooz Sadry. “Providing they continue to operate in a lawful manner, no hindrance should be placed in the way of FUNCINPEC and any other lawfully-constituted political party to engage in electoral and political activities,” Sadry wrote in a letter dated June 22. “It goes without saying, of course, that all four Cambodian parties must allow similar freedom of action to political parties in the zones under their control.”

SOC Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said it is premature for parties to open provincial offices.

“For the time being we think they should wait until all the parties have complied in full with the peace accords,” he said. “Not all the parties are registered yet-the election campaign has not yet started.”

Party Holds Congress at Olympic Stadium

The BLDP also charges that its members have been intimidated. “We tell our people to be actively involved in political parties only in proportion to the presence of UNTAC,” said Mouly. “When UNTAC is deployed at the district level, it’s okay. Otherwise it’s too dangerous for them.”

Despite the lack of a legal framework for the elections, in late May the BLDP was able to pull off its first major party congress in Phnom Penh. Held at Olympic Stadium with the approval of the Hun Sen government and logistical support from UNTAC, the two-day gathering attracted 8,000 people the first day and 3,000 the second.

During the week preceding the congress, many civil servants in SOC ministries said they were warned in official meetings not to attend the BLDP congress-which was held during working hours-or risk losing their jobs.

“If I didn’t work for this government, I would definitely go,” said a high school teacher in a district near Phnom Penh who recently joined the BLDP. “For me, I don’t care about my job-my job is useless. The problem for me is I care about my life.”

A medical worker at a Phnom Penh hospital snuck out of work despite being told attendance at work was mandatory during the two days of the BLDP congress. Admitting he was a little nervous entering Olympic Stadium, where government police videotaped people entering, the medical worker said he went because he was curious about the opposition party.

“We shouldn’t be scared any more,” he said. “UNTAC is here, the SNC and other political parties are here. If there’s a problem I can go and complain.

BLDP members also say a contingent of 152 of their members from Site 2 refugee camp were blocked from attending the congress by SOC police until UNTAC intervened, at which point the contingent had already headed back to Thailand.

Additionally, BLDP leaders say, 100 of their members who travelled from the provinces to attend the congress received “invitations” to talk with SOC police.

“The police politely invited them to come to the police station to have a chat but said their absence [from meeting with the police] was not permitted,” Mouly said. “People thought they were being arrested and ran away.”

SOC Foreign Minister Hor Namhong denied that government employees were officially warned not to attend the BLDP congress, although he said it was standard practice for each ministry to record staff absences from work.

The fact that the SOC government gave approval for the congress to be held, Namhong added, is “concrete proof of our pledge to respect human rights, pluralism, and democracy.”

Austin said specific charges by political parties about SOC abuses had been forwarded to UNTAC’s human rights and civil administration components.

“Because those components have primarily been launched only in SOC areas to date, SOC is under scrutiny in terms of civil rights,” Austin said. “If the cease-fire is not in place, the question can be raised-as SOC is raising-as to whether they should allow the other parties to go everywhere, allow FUNCINPEC to open an office, etc.

“If the electoral law were in place, then we would be able to lay down certain norms of civil and political behavior,” Austin added. Dennis McNamara, UNTAC Human Rights Chief, said his office received complaints about the alleged incidents from both BLDP and FUNCINPEC.

“We took the allegations up with the [SOC] authorities, told them it wasn’t acceptable, and were assured it would not be continued,” said McNamara, adding that UNTAC had received “full cooperation” at high levels from SOC officials when it had raised concerns with them.

In regard to government workers being instructed not to attend BDLP’s congress, McNamara said: “The meeting took place during the middle of the week. I don’t think my government or yours would agree to employees leaving their government jobs to go to a political rally during working hours.

“One should not ignore these things, but one should keep them in perspective,” McNamara added. “It’s the first rally of its kind in recent history in Phnom Penh. I think that’s a pretty dramatic step towards political freedom for opposition parties -quite an achievement. It took place without incident and was well attended.”

Non-incumbent parties are worried their chances may be affected by the relatively short time allotted to official campaigning, not set to begin before March of next year.

“There’s no possibility to campaign now for the other parties,” said Mouly. “But for the SOC party you see their posters with the three photos [of Chea Sim, Hun Sen, and Heng Samrin] everywhere.”

Kann Man, a member of the Liberal Social Democratic Party – an opposition party headed by Oung Phan-said: “The party that campaigns the longest can win. Because the campaign period is a very short time and so far away, the people don’t know how to make their choice. They’ll be afraid and intimidated by the government of Phnom Penh to vote for them.

“No one should get a headstart,” added Man. “Everyone should start from point zero. Otherwise UNTAC should stop other parties from campaigning.”

Campaign Fever

Austin said the six-week campaign period is not set in stone but added: “If the situation is highly volatile it may be best to have an extremely short campaign period and even a ‘cooling out’ period between the end of campaigning and the actual vote.”

Austin said it’s not always the norm for incumbents to win, citing surprise results in elections in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Nicaragua.

“The thing about a good election is it’s unpredictable,” he said. “That’s what makes it exciting. A corrupt election is predictable; it’s fundamentally dull.”

Whether an electoral law is implemented soon or not, the peace process and the holding of free and fair elections in Cambodia faces larger obstacles-namely the lack of cooperation by the Khmer Rouge in the cease-fire and disarmament processes.

Focused not so much on an electoral strategy as a military one, the Khmer Rouge are trying to gain as much territory as possible now, observers say.

“If they give up their arms and run in the election they will lose,” said Mouly. “By rejecting Phase II, they gain time to expand their territory-maybe two or three provinces more during the rainy season.” Without a true cease-fire and demobilization of the rival armies, it is unlikely a neutral political environment can be established to set the stage for elections.

“You can’t run an election and have a war going on at the same time,” said Austin. “If down the line there’s no cease-fire, there will still be problems with human rights and civil administration. At some point we have to ask if we have sufficient groundwork for free and fair elections.

“We’re concentrating on an election that’s held throughout Cambodia,” Austin added. “It’s not our business to hold an election in half of Cambodia, or 80 percent of Cambodia.”