TESTING THE LIMITS OF CHANGE: Cambodia's Politics after the July Elections

Article excerpt

Pierre P. Lizée

The most striking feature of the July 1998 elections in Cambodia was how closely they resembled the electoral exercise of May 1993. In 1993, the call to the polls was couched in terms of lofty goals of democratization of the political process in Cambodia. The actual electoral process nonetheless demonstrated that it was through the playing out of long-standing dynamics of rivalry and intimidation between opposing factions, much more than through an appeal to the popular will, that the question of power would be settled in the country. In a context where it was becoming increasingly clear that the results of the elections would not by themselves settle that question and that some form of accommodation would have to be found among the leaders of the different opposing factions, King Sihanouk provided the conduit through which inter-factional discussions began. These talks led to a nominal coalition agreement which, in reality, put the greatest measure of political power in Hun Sen's hands, and reflected little of the redistribution of power required by the results of the elections. Exactly the same, it seems, could be said about the July 1998 elections.

To that extent, the 1998 elections and the series of political developments surrounding them represented not so much a first step in an overdue process of democratization of the political environment in Cambodia, but rather a movement full circle to precisely the situation of autocracy which these elections were supposed to remedy. There was thus, in this perspective, the sense of a force of inertia at play in Cambodian politics, embedded in the politics and sociology of the inter-factional rivalry which has dominated Cambodia for so long, and giving rise only to a deep sense of pessimism as to the possibility of seeing the country move towards some form of political pluralism and freedom.

Some of the developments of the year, however, did lend themselves to a greater sense of optimism. The last weeks of 1998 brought with them the end of the Khmer Rouge when the last remnants of the guerrilla movement came out of the jungle and surrendered to the Phnom Penh government. …