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An Assessment of Progress Toward Local and National Elections in the Kingdom of Cambodia: July - August 1995


The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country in southeast Asia that has gone through decades of strife and political turmoil since becoming an independent nation in 1953. It is also an area that experienced a brutal annihilation of one million people during the mid-I 970s. However, beginning with the peace accords secured between 1990-1992, Cambodia has embarked on a new course which is moving the country toward self-determination and stability. In what has been described as one of the United Nation's finest accomplishments, the people of Cambodia were given the opportunity to begin the process of deciding their own destiny through the ballot box in an election which was held in May of 1993; an election in which 90% of the eligible voters cast ballots to elect their national leaders. The results of that balloting has led to a coalition government which has brought a modicum of stability to the country.


The 1993 election was a mere beginning to restore the democratization process to Cambodia. It was also a costly one: an estimated $1.7 billion dollars was spent by the world community to administer the election, much of it on security measures.


Now in 1995, Cambodia has begun the long but important process of continuing the transition to democracy by forming a committee to develop new laws on local and national elections. The need for local elections is abundantly clear. The current situation allows for a 120 member Constituent Assembly which meets only sporadically and has helped to continue the rather distant relationship between the people and their government. Local elections would provide an important constituent link with the governmental leadership .


The code and procedures used for the 1993 Constituent Assembly election were developed under the auspices of the United Nations. At the present time, Cambodia does not have a law for national or local elections. Indeed, officials at the local and provincial levels of government are administrators appointed by the central government. In June of this year, a seven-person committee was appointed by the co-Ministers of the Interior to draft new laws for local and national elections. This Committee, with members tied to the two major political parties--the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP)--have been working slowly and cautiously to formulate a new election law. Their present timetable calls for the draft law on local elections to be completed by August, 1995. The draft law will then be submitted to the Interior Ministry who may or may not involve the public, political parties, NGOs, the press and other groups in the review process. After Interior examines the draft law on local elections, it will then move to the co-Prime Ministers who will subsequently submit it to the Constituent Assembly for approval. A similar procedure is expected to be followed for the development and approval of the draft law for the national elections which is expected to be completed by the Committee this November. However, because of the complexities involved in completing such an important task, there may be changes in the process. Conceivably, the Interior Ministry might wait until both laws have been drafted before they permit public scrutiny and debate or attempt to move them forward simultaneously in the administrative and legislative process.


The committee drafting the local election law appeared to have considerable details to finalize as they formulate a workable and financially feasible registration and balloting system. Indeed, they welcomed the technical advice that was given regarding several elements of the draft. At the same time, members of the Committee made it clear that any request for assistance would have to come from the Interior Ministry or other high-ranking officials.


There are several important issues that need to be monitored and addressed during the next stage of development of the new laws for local and national elections. This would include opening the process to public scrutiny and debate; beginning long-term preparations for implementation of the new law; and ensuring that the fiscal implications of any proposed new law are fully understood before they are enacted. In addition, while there were several verbal indications of the need for technical and other aid, a formal request for election assistance should be made by the government to appropriate organizations such as IFES or donor nations.


The process of formulating, enacting and implementing a new election law and system will be a major undertaking for a country that is one of the world's poorest nations. However, it is a goal that must be accomplished if Cambodia is to continue on the road to democracy. Short and long-term assistance to Cambodia from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems could prove to be the most important element that facilitates this important transition. The establishment of an IFES field office in Cambodia is strongly recommended.


In the short term, it is clear that the various entities charged with the responsibility of drafting and passing a new election law could use considerable technical advice. At the present time, it appears that they are not considering enough options. Perhaps most importantly, during their deliberations, these leaders need to be made aware of the cost factors regarding various elements of their proposals in light of the realization that international financial assistance will be (at best) a fraction of what was donated in 1993.


Long-term assistance to implement a new election law will be crucial to ensure fairness and a timely development of the procedures and policies that will be required to hold elections. Some of those efforts would include statute and procedural drafting; logistical planning; legal interpretation; training of election commissions, poll workers, political parties, candidates, NGOs and observers; civic and voter education; commodities assistance; communications assistance; data-processing assistance; and donor coordination and solicitation.


Most of the details found in this document are based on information obtained from a series of discussions I had with various government and political leaders, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizens from the Kingdom of Cambodia during the week  of 29 July, 1995. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. 80S Kern of Cornell University for arranging these meetings, for his excellent translation and for imparting to me some of his vast knowledge of Cambodia.

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