by Christof Hartmann*
Elections have been a constant feature of Cambodia's turbulent political history. The various regime changes, however, have never been the consequence of democratic elections, but of coups d'état or regional military conflict. Elections held under Japanese military administration (1945), French colonial rule (1945-1953), Royal Government (1953-1970), the Khmer Republic (1970-1975), the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979), and the government of the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1991) shared two characteristics: while each new regime considered it necessary to organize elections, these at the same time simply ratified the existing political settlement, and never brought about a change of government. Against this background the 1993 elections held under UN administration were unique, insofar as they did reflect popular will and allowed free competition. This achievement was short-lived, however, since the subsequent 1998 elections were tainted again by serious irregularities and government manipulation.
By 1884 the ancient kingdom of Cambodia had been fully incorporated into the French colonial empire, with the King preserving many of his prerogatives. The ensuing nationalist uprising was suppressed. A brief period of Japanese military administration followed, during which a republican government was eventually installed, in March 1945. When the French won back Cambodia in October 1945, they immediately reinstalled the young King Norodom Sihanouk and exiled the nationalist movement Khmer Issarak. But the colonial authorities were forced to concede a far larger degree of self-government. In 1946 an elected Constitutional Assembly prepared a democratic constitution providing for a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral Parliament. The Constitution