Cambodia: losers reject election results

August 6, 1998


Cambodia: losers reject election results

By Helen Jarvis

Anyone reading the establishment press over the past month, or watching TV, would have been primed to expect certain results of the July 26 elections in Cambodia: the people would undoubtedly vote for the "democratic opposition" favoured by the west, and "strongman Hun Sen" would resist the people's choice and refuse to hand over power to his opponents.

Instead, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won the highest number of votes (around 60 of 122 seats), and it is the opposition now rejecting the results.

Both Prince Ranariddh, the leader of FUNCINPEC, and Sam Rainsy, leader of the party named for himself, are threatening to boycott the National Assembly to prevent the CPP conforming to the constitutional requirements of a quorum of 70% and 66% of members voting confidence in the new government.

Observers spread throughout the country last weekend, and in the days following the poll all their organisations endorsed the conduct of the election and the counting of votes.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) with 12,000 Cambodian observers, stated that the polling "took place smoothly" and the counting was "free and credible".

The Volunteer Observers for the Cambodian Election (VOCE) with 28 international observers, including 10 Australians, said, "VOCE believes that this election process was an authentic expression of the Cambodian people's choice, in conditions of genuinely secret ballot and under the committed scrutiny of party representatives and trained local and international observers ... The world should now show its respect for the Cambodian people by respecting their sovereign act of choice at the polls ..."

Even the US team, consisting of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (IRI-NDI) — which had given support during the past year to opposition leaders and had issued highly critical statements prior to the poll — gave an approving verdict.

The Joint International Observer Group (JIOG), with 500 international observers coordinated by the United Nations, stated that it was "a process which was free and fair to an extent that enables it to reflect in a credible way the will of the Cambodian people ... The JIOG believes that all parties should accept and honour the results of the election ..."

The European Union Presidency, with 200 observers, echoed this view: "We hope that the results of these elections will be respected by all political forces and lead to national reconciliation and the return of full constitutionality".

These endorsements were made before the results began to be known. On July 28, the first preliminary counts were released, indicating that the CPP was well in front and might attain an absolute majority. (Under the Cambodian constitution, it would still need to form a coalition to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to form a government.)

By July 31 the CPP's lead had slipped somewhat, but it was still well ahead. With over 90% of votes counted, the breakdown of the 122 seats in the National Assembly looked to be 59 for the CPP, 45 for FUNCINPEC and 18 for the Sam Rainsy Party.

As soon as the figures started to appear, Rainsy and Ranariddh began to reject the verdict of the observers. (Rainsy himself on the eve of the election had said he would view it as free and fair only if it produced equal votes for the three main parties!)

They claimed irregularities and called for a fresh vote in some areas even before the National Electoral Commission had had a chance to consider their challenges.

In the following days, both opposition leaders escalated their attack, announcing that their parties would refuse to take their seats, so denying Hun Sen the possibility of governing constitutionally.

"They can't reject the results just because they lose", said COMFREL director Thun Saray. Even the IRI-NDI team leader, member of Congress Stephen Solarz, said that he had seen no convincing evidence of electoral malpractice.

Hun Sen has proposed a government of national unity, offering ministries to both FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party, and the position of deputy prime minister to either Ranariddh or Rainsy.

This offer was rejected outright by both Ranariddh and Rainsy.

Typical of the international press's hostility to Hun Sen, the South China Morning Post correspondents described the offer of a government of national unity as "the thorniest of olive branches" because the CPP would have control of central ministries (hardly unusual when it had a considerable margin of votes).

However, King Sihanouk distanced himself from his son and gave his approval of the results and of Hun Sen's proposed government of national unity.

It seems unlikely that Ranariddh and Rainsy will be able to sustain a credible campaign against Hun Sen. Probably enough FUNCINPEC elected members will wish to take their seats and positions in the government; Ranariddh will perhaps be "kicked upstairs" as "king in waiting" to an ambassadorship in Paris or New York. Rainsy himself will probably want to take up a portfolio.

They do, however, still have the possibility of continuing a spoiling game under the very tight terms of the Cambodian constitution, especially if they can get foreign support for it.

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