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Cambodia Election 2018: Neither Free nor Fair nor Credible.

Takhmau Cambodia the CPP Election Post nearest our house. Please note the Church poster. I tweeted that what it depicted might be apt for what CPP did to the Opposition CNRP party but had they overlooked that after the crucification came the resurrection?

For more photographs capturing the "atmosphere" please visit John Brown's album.

Cambodia in the modern era, since the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, and its subsequent new democratic constitution, has had national elections every five years since 1993 as well as local commune elections. Until the National Assembly election in July 2018, every election was fought competitively - if not fairly - by the ruling and opposition parties with the processes subjected to scrutiny by reputable international election observers.

This year, however, the only real challenging opposition party, was dissolved and banned from participating, accused by the ruling party of fomenting a colour revolution to overthrow it and risking a return to conflict.

The ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) had been shocked by the 2013 National Election that saw the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) almost gain parity with it, left with a small majority of 68 seats to the CNRP's 55. From 2014, the ruling party set about weakening the opposition as well as reducing the influence of Cambodia's previously vibrant Civil Society. In addition as the economy grew and China stepped up its foreign aid, the ruling party also reduced dependence on Western donors that supported democracy.

In June 2017, against this backdrop, Cambodian local elections were held – for control of 1,646 commune councils, previously held mainly by the ruling party with 1,592 Council Chiefs and 8,292 Councillors. Once again, the ruling party was shocked, losing 436 Chiefdoms and 1,789 Councillors. A resurgent opposition overcame the odds to gain 44% of the vote, ending up with 489 Chiefdoms (30%) and 5,007 Councillors (43%).

Within a month of the results being announced, just one year before the scheduled National Assembly elections in 2018, the ruling party invoked desperate measures to outlaw the opposition CNRP and its top leaders in order to guarantee its hold on power. The moves were widely condemned, except by one-party controlled countries like China; Vietnam, and Laos.

The big stage was set in Takhmau was set for CPP to lauch its election campaign – only very few people stayed to see the videos on the large screen, just one lonely SUV vehicle. In 2013 this was the scene of a vast CNRP rally with Opposition Leader then exiled relayed live from France.

Therefore the previous considerable international support for Cambodia' s elections dropped dramatically. The main domestic election monitoring organisations, whose umbrella group had also been outlawed, chose not to observe the elections. Similarly, the main international observer groups – from the United States; European Union; and Japan as well as the main Asian one, the Asian Network for Free Elections “ANFREL” also decided not to observe the election. Instead some new domestic and international observer groups emerged, most making little effort to disguise connections with the ruling #CPP party.

This meant that there were few if any reputable international election observers in Cambodia for the elections, and more importantly for the entire period before and after an election. A full parliamentary cycle needs to be studied carefully for credible judgments to be passed. In the absence of such observers, and also to set out clearly how and why reports by the “new” observers were flawed, I decided to make my own observations and assessments on this election in a similar way to how I had done for every election since 1998. Followers of my Twitter account and Blog will have also seen my comments made as and when developments took place between 2014 and 2018.

I trust that this contribution will plug a vital gap in the reporting of Cambodia's 2018 election, in setting out the major factors in a technical analysis that can only reach one conclusion. This analysis does not examine aspects of Cambodia's electoral system that fall short of best democracies, like the party-slate system of representation rather than directly chosen named candidates and the fact that electoral boundaries are decided by the ruling party-led Ministry of Interior (that sees the pro-Opposition Phnom Penh population seriously under-represented).

Although 19 political parties competed against CPP none were well-known, hence all combined they gained just 21% of ballots cast, not enough to win a seat.

Regardless of those factors, there is only one conclusion to be reached. The 2018 Cambodian National Assembly elections that concluded with the ruling CPP party taking all 125 seats were neither free, nor fair, nor credible. The outcome cannot reflect the wishes of the electorate, either a significant proportion if not a majority of it.  Although the ruling party endeavoured to bolster a high turnout, given grave threats and intimidation ordering voters to vote, its desire for legitimacy for continued rule from these elections as far as much of the world is concerned, was not realized. This analysis sets out clearly what must be done in Cambodia to restore domestic and international faith in the election processes.

Please click here for the technical analysis.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Prof. Rhona Smith, produced a special addendum on the 2018 elections to go with her September 2018 report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Her conclusions mirror mine. She also sets them in the same overall context, i.e., not just around the immediate election period as some "observers" do.

Update 2 October 2018

The mantra of my blog is"Linking life and times of Northumberland with Cambodia...".  If you excuse the technically that the City of Newcastle is no longer part of Northumberland, then nowhere is this mantra better written up than in an excellent article by Holly Baxter. It tells of a Geordie who left our shores for the big world, ending up in Cambodia where he was killed. Although the tragedy happened over 40 years ago, it is highly relevant to the situation in Cambodia today.  See also my tweets and thread.

Update 25 October 2018

Prime Minister Hun Sen is in Europe hoping that high-level contacts will help him avoid sanctions - the withdrawal of "Everything But Arms" (EBA) tariff-free status by the European Union in response to its stance on the recent election. He is also hoping to garner more recognition for his "victory" to be  legitimized. The ruling party's social media circus soon sought to portray his visit to domestic and world audiences. I picked up the first Tweet to this effect - please see this Moment and Thread - forwarded to the IPU where it was roundly and robustly rejected. It featured in articles in the Phnom Penh Post and other online media.

Update 29 January 2019

Lee Morgenbesser has published his article on the Cambodian elections and political scene in the Journal of Democracy (JoD).  This is really just the third proper attempt to comment authoritatively, all the more surprising given the implications and consequences.  UN Human Rights Rapporteur Rhona Smith's and mine are the other two.  There will be more comment to emerge from the UN Human Rights Committee Universal Periodic review taking place this week - where incidentally the UK is one of three members to take the lead in the assessment process. Normally the JoD would want counter-views not expressed in this article, although they may come in a reply.  We do know what the Cambodian Government and ruling party claims and tries to portray to largely unconvinced audiences at home or abroad.

Lee basically makes the point that PM Hun Sen has consolidated his control to be absolute, to take the form of dictatorship. Even in 2013-4 it was clear to some of us that although Hun Sen was often arbitrary in his decision-making, he was still subject to powerful forces around him. Who could forget his 5 hour speech at the Council of Ministers when he was still shocked by how close CNRP came in 2013 to winning the elections? He extolled his associates to reform and "scrub themselves clean".  As I have blogged elsewhere he soon learned that to take on his friends was more difficult and dangerous than his enemies.

It is clear though that through deft changes in the ruling party structure, in ministerial appointments, and realignments within armed forces, especially in promoting sons and closest associates, that indeed the inner-circle if friends is now more to his personal liking. Hun sen has not vanquished his foes within the ruling party but side-tracked many, "promoting" them upstairs, to be legislators in the National Assembly or Senate or as "advisers" where they lack real power. That process will only be clear and successful when Interior Minister Sar Kheng is removed or sidelined. He represents the last vestiges of the late Chea Sim faction within the party. Of course the death in 2017 of Sok An with his strong influence and power-base is another factor.

For me there were two most significant events that led to where we are today, both that were allowed to pass with little or no resistance by the international community. The first was in 2011 when the government cancelled its periodic reviews with donors to check on progress and commitments. They had always showed a pattern of under-achievement.  That never brought reprisals. In fact donors kept giving money as they did even after these crucial review meetings were abandoned.  The second major factor was the ruling party abandoning any pretense of the political neutrality of armed forced or public services.

Addendum – a Personal Anecdote

It is clear from my writings that I do support the right of the Opposition CNRP to exist and to compete fairly in Cambodia. This is not just for elections but in-between where on the whole its members are more active in seeking to represent the interests of poor people than their CPP colleagues. CPP members must operate quite differently - mainly as disciplined delegates of the high leadership.  I must also make it clear that I have met and engaged with leaders of all the main parties but not PM Hun Sen.

As I have blogged elsewhere I have done a lot of work with Deputy PM and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and his staff between 1998 and 2008. The first senior person I dealt with in the Opposition was Mu Sochua when she was Minister of Women's Affairs in the coalition government with FUNCINPEC 1998-2003.  Years later our paths crossed with mutual friend Kosal
Mu Sochua campaigning in 2013 with our mutual friend Kosal Seng providing the Pop Rock music accompaniment.
To listen to Kosal's CNRP song click here.

I first met Sam Rainsy and his wife in 1990. In 2004 I first met Kem Sokha. Over the years I have met many senior ministers as well as opposition leaders and just about all Civil Society leaders.

Why?  Basically to advance the philosophy of “constructive engagement” in human rights and governance, an alternative approach to the polarized or factionalized nature of public life in Cambodia. In politics that division is clear even if the ideologies behind it are not. You do not find a simple left/right or socialist versus capitalist divide as in most countries around the world. You will find in both parties liberal and socialist policies at the same time and especially in the case of CPP it switches easily from one to the other.  Basically parties in Cambodia oppose each for opposition sake in the struggle for power.

In Civil Society especially the human rights sector the division is not clear, not even well-known, in fact at times hidden. Most people are familiar with the approach of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International where human rights violations are pointed out and transgressions measured technically against international standards set out in various instruments stemming from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Then violators are “named, blamed and shamed” in the hope of eliciting a change in behaviour. In Cambodia that approach seldom works. Most often it invokes an equally hostile response, “shooting the messenger” rather than addressing the merits of the argument and the core principles.

Constructive engagement” is intended to be an alternative or complementary approach whereby instead of confronting violators and keeping them at distance, efforts are made to engage with them quietly to encourage changes of behaviour, for them to be associated with or even become agents of change. The approach seeks to work with “good” people even within the ruling party. This does occur in Cambodia, often quietly, more so at local levels.

Sadly experience has shown that constructive engagement in Cambodia at higher levels has not produced lasting results, even if some short-term benefits have been gained. Again as I have written too often authorities accept projects and their external funds but only with a tacit rather than wholehearted commitment to the change.

The Boueng Kak Lake dispute is well-known with the imprisonment of community activist Tep Vanny who was suddenly pardoned in August 2018. Not well-known is that the issue shows the intransigence of the ruling party and the failure of the donor, the World Bank and leading NGOs in the “Land Management and Planning Project (LMAP) that could and should have ended Cambodia's many land disputes. Basically the project was to establish a proper system for recording land ownership registration with procedures for changes of ownership based on prior consultation; legal representation of all parties, and adequate compensation. The project was ended prematurely by the Cambodian Government in the face of widespread criticism including by the World Bank's own investigators. The project did provide funding for legal representation of parties but it was channelled through government and to be allocated by it to NGOs. They however were concerned that receiving money in this way would be tainted and compromise their neutrality and reputations. In a nutshell, this example denotes the deep suspicion between the ruling party and all forms of opposition, unable to work together, with only one loser – the poor and vulnerable people all sides claim to serve.

As stated above in this blog, the ruling party has sought to eliminate all forms of opposition since 2014. It remains to be seen if in the absence of being held to account, by being shamed, if it will adopt more citizen-friendly policies, as both PM Hun Sen and Deputy PM Sar Kheng, have announced. However to do so would be a marked shift from its track record over many years.

Kem Sokha was arrested, charged with treason, accused of conspiring with foreign powers (US advisers) to foment a colour revolution like those that swept across the Middle East toppling regimes. I actually think that those US advisers were advocating “constructive engagement” with Kem Sokha, beginning with consultations with people at at community-levels to mobilize them to argue for their own interests and required changes. In essence that is the “good governance” training that we offered and provided on a mass scale to all parties and over 30,000 officials and community leaders between 1996 and 2005. I worked closely with Mu Sochua's late husband, Scott Lieper, who headed the UNDP component “SEILA” implementing it, in effect if not openly in name, advancing constructive engagement. Even less well-known, similar projects took place to address human trafficking issues and in other sectors, also with mixed results.

Now while such community mobilisation is party-political, as it does aim at building membership and loyalty, it does not exist solely for the purpose of winning elections. In fact it seeks to elicit change before and in-between elections on the part of those in power.

This is not treason. It is normal politics. It is actually good politics, acting as a safety-valve to release tensions rather than allowing grievances to fester, that could build up and erupt in to violence and renewed conflict.

For now there is an uneasy peace in Cambodia. Far too many people are unhappy especially younger people who look to the West for how they want to live, not to China or Vietnam. Sooner or later their dissatisfaction will be expressed, probably outside the democratic processes.  If so, then once again blood will be shed.

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