Tag Archives: democracy

Twenty years after Cambodia’s first election, were the pessimists right?

Election frenzy is at full pitch in Cambodia. The election is in mere days, on July 28, and  it’s nearly impossible to walk through one of its cities without being held up by an enthusiastic political rally, waving flags from motorbikes, trucks, and tractors.

Yes, it is a campaign tractor and it is awesome. (Justin Lorenzon)
Yes, it is a campaign tractor and yes, it is awesome. (Justin Lorenzon)

While visiting Phnom Penh last week, I met with a friend for drinks on a rooftop bar. It was the day that Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of the opposition party, had returned to Cambodia after being pardoned from some more than dubious political charges.

His supporters made their way up the street in a motorcade and our waiters looked at it, looked at us, and then apologized, they had to go down to the street. It’s their party and they needed to show their support.

We gave them our blessing and they went. I have never seen employees abandon their posts to demonstrate their political support during an election in Canada. It’s heartening to see here.

Yet for all the enthusiasm, the general consensus is that the election will change nothing, and the current prime minister will continue his 27-year autocratic reign. Hun Sen, now 60, has said he wants to remain in office until he is 90. Already, he is one of the 10 longest-serving leaders in the world.

A Cambodian friend explains that though he has his own political opinions, he has to vote for the ruling party. His uncle is a big supporter of Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), and each ballot is numbered, so if he votes for another party his uncle will know and it will cause trouble for his family. “What’s the point?” he asks. “They might as well fill out the ballot for me and save me the time.”

The election is a formality. Articles casually describe how Hun Sen will win the election on Sunday, no need to count the ballots. As Freedom House asserts, Cambodia is not free, and neither are its elections.

CPP supporters at a rally in Battambang. There are reports that the party has been paying university students to attend such rallies. (Allison Smith)
CPP supporters at a rally in Battambang. There are reports that the party has been paying university students to attend such rallies. (Allison Smith)

As it happens, I’ve recently moved to Cambodia and so am devouring everything I can read about the country, with a particular interest in what has been written about the first Cambodian elections, which were sponsored by the United Nations 20 years ago, in 1993.

The three books I’m reading offer distinct perspectives on the election, from the personal to the academic, and the idealistic to the cynical.

Journalist Tiziano Terzani’s A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East falls firmly on the cynical side of the spectrum. He largely views the election as an exercise in absolving the West’s guilt for failing to act during the genocide. Writing about the fallout from the Khmer Rouge and the international community’s determination to get the country back on its feet, he says:

“And so, for little Cambodia, the ‘Great Powers’ had found one those solutions that serve to justify any immorality: a compromise. […] the massacres were forgotten, executioners and victims were put on the same level, the combatants on both sides were asked to lay down their arms, and their chiefs to stand for election. May the best man win! As if Cambodia in 1993 were the Athens of Pericles.”

Offering a more idealistic view (though it cannot be described as an idealistic book) is Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, a memoir by three UN workers. Heidi Postlewait, one of the authors, describes working at a polling station in rural Cambodia:

“At daybreak on the first day, thousands of Cambodians are already calmly waiting outside my polling station. They squat on the ground, silent and patient. We didn’t expect this at all. We thought they would fail to understand how democracy works. We thought they would be afraid of the Khmer Rouge. We thought they would passively accept their fate. We were wrong.”

It paints a beautiful picture of a fledging democracy, where over 90% of Cambodians cast a ballot in that first election. This rosy view is challenged by professor and former journalist Joel Brinkley. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Brinkley describes the election violence that Postlewait was fortunate enough to avoid:

“Khmer Rouge gunners shelled polling and police stations in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Siem Reap, and elsewhere. Election workers fled; several were killed.”

He further describes the various politicking in the aftermath of the election, describing how “Cambodia’s leaders, all of them, were plotting, scheming, bribing, and backstabbing to come out on top, as if the election had never taken place.”

Eventually, Hun Sen assumed full control of the government, despite the fact that he had lost the election (minor detail). Twenty years later, he’s still in power and Cambodia’s elections arguably have as little impact as they did then.

So twenty years later, it is easy to side with Terzani and Brinkley’s cynical assessment of the impact of Cambodia’s first elections. What has changed? Same prime minister, same endemic corruption, same political repression, everything same same.

Yet it’s possible to channel some of Postlewait’s optimism if you are take solace in small signs of progress. No, the opposition leader has not been allowed to run in this election, but he has been allowed back into the country. And countries like Myanmar demonstrate that decades of political repression can crack at any time.

Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism comes from the attitudes of Cambodians themselves. Just as there’s a consensus that nothing will change this election, there seems to be a growing belief that there could be real change in the next election, five years from now. “Change” is a word on their lips – people are changing their minds, things have changed since the last election, when there wasn’t such support for the opposition. Maybe things will change next election.

Supporters of the opposition party make their way through the streets of Battambang (Allison Smith)
Supporters of the opposition party make their way through the streets of Battambang (Allison Smith)

It’s a much slower pace of change than many would like, and certainly slower than many accustomed to healthy democracies would tolerate. But Postlewait was right to be inspired by the resolute determination of Cambodians voting in their first election twenty years ago, and her optimism is worth keeping alive. So a slower pace of change is what those of us who care about Cambodia will have to be content with.

Kenyans do it better: thoughts on the first (ever) Kenyan presidential debate

Eight politicians stood behind podiums in a crescent-moon formation as a journalist asked questions about factionalism, education, health, and the economy. Sounds like a pretty standard – and boring – debate, especially to those of us used to watching pols glide through them, all trite soundbites and poll-tested positions, bereft of substance or interest.

But in Kenya, the first presidential debateever – was anything but boring; the debaters were engaged, articulate, and actually answering the questions asked*.

To an American, the moderators’ tough questions and follow-ups – up to and including prodding the debaters with phrases such as “OK, but can you please answer my question?” – was a welcome reprieve from the tepid debates (which may be too strong a word) we’re used to. Kenya is well-known for being a heavily factionalized, tribalized society, so it was interesting to see the debate kicked off with a question that hit that issue head-on. While the answers given were pretty standard (Raila Odinga: “Kenya for all, not just for a few elite;” Uhuru Kenyatta: “Tribalism is a cancer…it has been a source of conflict, a source of death**”), it was impressive to see the question posed.

Kenya Sidebar

Throughout, the moderators refused to let the contestants get away from questions, and were very inclusive; even though Kenyatta and Odinga – sons of the first President and Vice President, respectively – command about 86% of the vote according to polls, the others were still given a chance to interact and respond. In my opinion – shared by those I was with – both Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua came across as leaders or future leaders of Kenya.

The debaters were generally straightforward in their answers; my favorite exception to this came when Mohammed Abduba Dida responded to the question, “How old is your party?” with the answer (I’m paraphrasing) “The ideas that my party was founded on are very old.” They were polished but not too polished, and unfailingly civil towards one another – though it would have been nice if they had directly responded to each other more often.  All in all, a debate worth watching, and one that most can learn from.

Compare this to the US and other democracies, where politicians manage to dodge a question, speak a lot without saying anything, and fling ad hominem attacks at each other. Where moderators are allowed very little control and exert even less of it. Where time is used to deliver a series of miniature stump speeches designed to appeal either only to the base, or cheap platitudes devoid of value (which brings to mind the classic The Simpsons clip where – disguised as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole – aliens assert the value of “abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”).


Five years ago, Kenya was wracked by ongoing violence due to perceived “voting irregularities,” which in this case is a euphemism for “Kibaki and the Kikuyus may have stolen the election”. All eyes are on the country again this year, which votes on March 4th. Human Rights Watch is sounding the alarm and calling the risk of political violence “perilously high,” and it’s likely that a runoff on April 11th will be needed to decide the winner (coincidentally,  also when Kenyatta’s ICC trail begins).

One thing is for sure: over-optimistic or not, let’s hope that this first debate is a bellwether for how competing Kenyan political parties will govern, and act – not only for the country’s sake, but for Africa’s too.

More about Kenya’s history can be found at Mike Miesen’s own blog (here).


*It also helped that sitting in the room with me were Kenyans, Ugandans, Brits, and Americans, all with varying views and knowledge of Kenyan politics.

**Which Kenyatta is alleged to know a thing or two about; he’s a frontrunner in this election despite being accused of committing crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting violence after the previous election in 2007.