At 6:00 a.m. on 26 July 1998, Sous Yet was standing in a queue at a high school behind the National Bank in central Phnom Penh waiting to cast his vote for only the second time in his life. Unable to conceal his excitement, he described how he had woken at 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., risen at 5:oo a.m., and was waiting for the polling station to open at 7:00 a.m. He was one of more than four million Cambodians who were hoping to determine the shape of the government for the next 5 years. The 1998 Cambodian election came 5 years after the massive United Nations peacekeeping mission—UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)—that was expected to bring democracy to this small Southeast Asian country that had experienced 25 years of war and virtually no political development. Within 48 hours of the poll closing, the two main international observer groups effectively declared voting day and counting day free and fair. On that basis, former United States congressmen Stephen Solarz, who had a high pro le and a long association with Cambodia, publicly pronounced the 26 July 1998 election a ‘miracle on the Mekong’, referring to the river on which Phnom Penh is built (Solarz 1998). However, as an electoral process cannot be judged on voting and counting alone, many observers and international organisations declared that the 1998 Cambodian electoral process was adversely controlled by the incumbent regime, and that the periods before and after the election were characterised by intimidation, coercion and violence, and a lack of accountability and transparency. This paper suggests the election was not a ‘miracle on the Mekong’ because it was not free and fair, due to three factors, outlined in the section ‘Understanding why’: the incumbent regime’s failure to separate state and party, and the executive and judiciary; its failure to establish rule of law and respect for human rights; and its non-acceptance of a political opposition. Further, it is suggested that until these three factors are recti ed, the next election cannot be a ‘miracle’ either. First, however, the paper begins with a background on what constitutes free and fair elections, Cambodian political society and the incumbent regime’s in uence before, during and after the 1998 election.
Australian Journal of International Affairs