Before and after the July 1998 Elections

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Before and after the July 1998 Elections


If the minutiæ of the elections of July 1998 proved to be exceedingly complex (see accompanying text), the story told by these elections was actually quite simple. The elections were not about who would form the next government in Cambodia so much as about what the very rules of political power would be in the country, and those who stood to lose their position of influence if these rules were changed attempted to minimize the impact that the elections could have at this level.

From this perspective, the events of 1998 can perhaps be understood best if the year is divided into three periods. The first period extends from the beginning of the year until the end of March, when Prince Ranariddh returned to Phnom Penh for the first time since the events of July 1997 and set in motion the pragmatics of his participation in the elections which were to be held a few months later. The return of the Prince marked the end of an intense process of negotiation among the international and Cambodian actors involved in the determination of the principles and regulations which would guide the organization of those elections. These talks allowed Hun Sen to shape the electoral process in such a way that it could not become threatening to his influence over Cambodian politics. The second period runs from April until the elections in July. It is characterized by the attempts of the two main adversaries of Hun Sen in the electoral arena, Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, to make the best of a bad situation and to run strong campaigns in an environment they could not control. The third period begins with the sit-in demonstrations which took place in the weeks following the elections and were intended to force a review of the electoral process. It concludes at the end of the year, when it becomes clear that the results of the elections would stand and a coalition government dominated by Hun Sen would be formed. This period is first characterized by the attempt of the losers of the elections to regain some power by shifting the terrain of politics in Cambodia towards the streets, and by using the manifestations of popular resentment against Hun Sen's domination of the electoral process to their own benefit. It ends as this process collapses and Hun Sen's adversaries either join him in his new government, as in the case of Prince Ranariddh, or are relegated to the margins of Cambodian politics, as in the case of Sam Rainsy.

The first period, extending from the beginning of the year until the return of Prince Ranariddh to Phnom Penh, in the last days of March, was marked most strikingly by questions about the nature of the political climate which would prevail in Cambodia as the country prepared for the elections which were to be held in a matter of months. The focus of these questions first revolved around the degree of press freedom which would be allowed in the months prior to the elections. In January, six newspapers whose publication had been suspended were allowed to publish again, but only after Khieu Kanharith, the Secretary of State for Information, had stated that the temporary closures were necessary if violence against the journalists working for these newspapers was to be avoided. This took place in a climate where the government added provisions to its press laws which allowed for the prosecutions of journalists if they printed information "of disservice to the territorial integrity and sustainability of Cambodia", and where actual attacks against some journalists gained in regularity.1

Simple access to the media also proved tricky for the opposition parties. For instance, in a country where radio is the medium of choice to reach the majority of the population in the countryside because people there often cannot read or have television, radio broadcasting licences proved difficult to get for many of Hun Sen's electoral adversaries.2 Reports also surfaced to the effect that the government had set up a surveillance mechanism intended to monitor the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during the electoral period, and particularly those of groups involved in the defence or promotion of human rights. …

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