Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Cambodian Elections of 1998 and Beyond: Democracy in the Making?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Cambodian Elections of 1998 and Beyond: Democracy in the Making?

Article excerpt

On 26 July 1998, Cambodia held a national election. It was the first election since the one overseen by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), held in May 1993. More than 5.3 million Cambodians (or 97 per cent of potential voters) registered to cast their ballots. About 90 per cent of them went to the polls. Altogether, 39 political parties registered to contest the 122 seats in the National Assembly. The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was the official winner with 64 seats, followed by two opposition parties (Funcinpec, with 43 seats; and the Sam Rainsy Party, with 15 seats). The two opposition parties refused to accept the results, accusing the CPP of winning through intimidation and fraud. They declined to form a coalition government with CPP Prime Minister Hun Sen and led protests that resulted in government crackdowns. Were the elections free and fair? Is Cambodia now on its way towards liberal democracy? Observers and analysts have differed in their assessments of the elections. It is argued that, although the elections were freer and fairer than expected, they were not free and fair in absolute terms. Existing structural conditions continue to prevent liberal democracy from taking root in strife-torn Cambodia.

The Electoral Process and Results

Before the electoral process can be objectively explained, it is worth looking at some of the basic rules of the electoral game, the main political parties' ideological commitments and promises, and their actual political behaviour.

Basic Rules of the Electoral Game

The rules of the democratic game in Cambodia are spelt out clearly in both the Constitution and the Election Law.(1) According to the Constitution, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy governed by the "principles of liberal democracy and pluralism" (Article 1). This is compatible with the Paris Agreement signed on 23 October 1991 by four Cambodian factions - the State of Cambodia (SOC), Funcinpec, the KPNLF (Khmer People's National Liberation Front), and Democratic Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge). According to the Agreement, the signatories agreed that the "Constitution will state that Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism". The Constitution "will provide for periodic and genuine elections", "for the right to vote and to be elected by universal and equal suffrage," and "for voting by secret ballot". Moreover, the Constitution ensures that "electoral procedures provide a full and fair opportunity to organize and participate in the electoral process" (Annex 5, 4).

In terms of electoral rights, the Constitution states that Khmer citizens of at least eighteen years of age "shall enjoy the right to vote", and those of at least twenty-five years shall have the right to stand as candidates for the election" (Article 34). They also have the right "to establish associations and political parties" (Article 42).

The liberal Constitution does not specify what electoral system Cambodia should adopt, although UNTAC had embraced proportional representation. It was not until the law on the election of the National Assembly was promulgated on 19 December 1997 that this was made clear. It stipulated that Cambodia would have elections in accordance with the principles of multi-party, liberal democracy, with proportional representation as the electoral system in provincial/municipal constituencies. Members of Parliament "shall be elected by a general, universal, free, fair, equal, and secret election by means of secret balloting" (Article 5). Seats for each constituency would be determined and allocated to each political party, only after all complaints have been resolved. The Law also stipulates that "[remaining] seats for each constituency shall be allocated with the greatest average formula" (Article 118).

The political principle of "freeness" and "fairness" regarding the electoral process is based on a number of fundamental rules, one of which is the role of the media during the election campaign period. …

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