Sunday, January 30, 2005

Democracy's Shining Moment

From the moment the polls opened in the morning it was obvious that the election was going to be a success. Not only were people lining up to vote, they were clamoring to vote, jostling in a good-natured way with their neighbors to be the first to cast their ballot.

By the end of the first day of voting, some 42 per cent of the registered electorate had cast their ballots. By the third day, 85 per cent had voted. At the end of the six-day voting period, 90 percent of the voters had voted in their country’s first free election since independence.

Iraq in 2005? No, Cambodia in 1993.

Going to the polls took courage since the threat of violence was real. The dreaded Khmer Rouge, famous for the killing fields, was still very much a presence. They had waged a propaganda campaign to oppose elections. Anyone who voted was branded a ‘’Vietnamese puppet,’’ referring to the Vietnamese who had occupied the country from 1979 to 1989.

These were not empty threats. The Khmer Rouge was well armed with self-propelled grenades and 107mm rockets. Armed propaganda teams threatened to kill people at the polling places. After the murder of a Japanese election worker, there were calls to delay the election. More than 15,000 international peacekeepers braced for attacks.

Even so they voted. In epic numbers they voted. It may well be that the 90 per cent turnout in this election (surpassed even in the second national election in 1998) must be a record where voting is voluntary. If there were such a thing as a global Democracy Hall of Fame the dates May 23-28, 1993, should have its special place of honor.

Much ink will be spilled in the next few days following Iraq’s election about the turnout and whether it means that this test of democracy in the Arab world is or isn’t a success. But comparisons should not be made with voter turnout rates in more settled(some might sway jaded)democracies such as the U.S.

As a general rule, people who have been denied the opportunity to vote in free and fair elections, do so enthusiastically and in great numbers when finally given a chance. This is true in Buddhist countries like Cambodia and Muslim countries such as Indonesia.

For a more recent example, take Indonesia where 75% of the electorate voted in 2004 in their presidential election. It was not the first democratic election in Indonesia, but it was the first time the people chose their president directly.

Looking back, the 1993 election was a turning point in the Cambodia’s history, much as people hope that Iraq’s election will eventually usher in a new era for that country. Since 1993, and even more since the second national election in 1998 (in which 94 per cent voted) Cambodia has been stable and peaceful.

The Khmer Rouge has disappeared. The infamous Pol Pot died in April 1998, while other former leaders and commanders have been co-opted into the political process. In 2003 Cambodia’s third general election passed peacefully, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world.

These days Cambodia has dropped from the world’s headlines. Only specialists and professional Asia watchers understand or pay much attention to the maneuverings of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy as they form and reform coalitions.

If Cambodia breaks into the world’s news it usually is something about the shenanigans of the colorful royal family or the sex trade. But there was a moment in time when Cambodians stood tall and showed the rest of the world the power, and universality, of democracy.


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