US democracy for Cambodians

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 1 November 2013. This is a more detailed response to the article discussed in the previous post, which was kept deliberately short to make it suitable for publication in the newspaper’s letters section.]

The United States is a country overflowing with democracy. For this reason, it has long been necessary for the US to export at least part of its democracy, to prevent those at the bottom of US democracy from drowning in it.

Nearly half a century ago, US democracy was exported to Cambodia in the bomb bays of B-52s. Sadly, the US democracy dropped by the B-52s didn’t really take hold here, probably because of climatic differences. Nevertheless, the US government persisted throughout the 1980s, quietly backing a group called “Democratic Kampuchea” until it became obvious that DK was withering and dying out.

But lower-level US people were still drowning, so Washington had to come up with another way of exporting democracy. Some bright spark in a think tank came up with the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute: government-funded non-government organisations (yes, really) that would help to spread US-style democracy to countries where it hadn’t yet taken hold (the evidence being that the people there hadn’t voted as they would have voted in the US).

The IRI and the NDI aren’t really different from each other, despite the need to maintain the fiction that US Republican and Democratic foreign policies are alternatives. There is usually an amicable division of labour between them. For instance, when the US government decided to overthrow the leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in 2002, the funding and encouragement of the coup plotters were left mostly to the NDI – probably on the theory that the “liberal” NDI could get away with more than the “conservative” IRI could do before Chavez caught on. Conversely, if you’re a conservative dictator having frictions with the US, you should probably tell your secret police to focus on what the IRI is up to. Nobody ever said that international coup-organising is simple.

None of the above is meant to imply that the US government is trying to organise a coup in Cambodia. It probably isn’t, if only because it is preoccupied now with wars or coups in other places where it feels its democratic principles are more threatened. But stay tuned.

In Cambodia, the IRI and NDI have divided the tasks of government-funded non-government organisations in an unusual way, perhaps in an effort to avoid being typecast. The IRI has conducted public opinion surveys, which usually show that a large majority of Cambodians are generally in favour of the course being followed by the government. Meanwhile, the NDI has been conducting surveys that imply that the government is trying to prevent people from voting. These two positions seem contradictory, but US-style democracy seems to like contradiction.

The NDI’s latest claim on the subject was reported in the Cambodia Daily on 30 October. The article quoted Laura Thornton, NDI’s country director, as saying that, according to a survey, “29.5 percent of citizens attempted to vote on election day, but were unable to”, and that “this number of disenfranchised voters had the potential to have changed the outcome of the elections”.

Curiously, more than 24 hours after the article was published, no information about this survey was available on the NDI website or anywhere else on the internet except the Daily’s web page. Is the NDI in the habit of giving “scoops” to the Cambodia Daily? Or did the NDI have so little confidence in its own analysis that it decided to try it out first in just one location?

Whatever the explanation, the situation makes it impossible to know whether unanswered questions in the article stem from the NDI or from the Daily reporters. And such questions there are aplenty.

For a start, the article doesn’t report the number of people surveyed, which is indispensable for judging the reliability of any survey. Nor does it say clearly how the respondents were selected. It does imply, however, that the selection was not random, since Thornton is quoted as saying that a survey aim was “to assess the impact of candidate debates organised by NDI”. Thus it appears that the people surveyed had attended, or at least were aware of, NDI-organised candidate debates, and were to that extent not typical Cambodian voters.

Another unanswered question is whether the surveyors simply accepted people’s word that they were properly registered and had tried, unsuccessfully, to vote. In every country where voting is not compulsory, there are larger or smaller numbers of people who don’t register or who register but don’t vote. However, in the recent Cambodian election, there was considerable social pressure – both from the National Election Committee and other officials and in the form of large and enthusiastic election rallies – to be part of the election process, to vote. And the mere act of asking someone why they didn’t vote suggests that non-voters are a bit odd, if not actively anti-social.

So there may have been pressure on non-voter respondents to exaggerate their efforts to vote. It would therefore help to judge the reliability of the survey to know whether it took this possibility into account, and precisely how the questions were phrased. Did the surveyors ask to see evidence that people were registered, such as the receipt that is issued when people enrol? Did they ask whether respondents had sought to find their names on the publicly posted voters list prior to election day, as the election authorities encouraged people to do? How many respondents answered the survey by saying things such as “No, I never got around to registering” or “I moved into this commune after the registration closed, and my old commune is too far away” or “I was sick on election day” or “I was going to vote, but my cow got away and I had to go find it”? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

Probably the strangest aspect of the article is that it doesn’t tell us what the majority of interviewed non-voters said. Thornton told the Daily that 32.6% couldn’t find their names on the voters list, and 15.2% “said they were prevented from voting by polling officials”. Those are the only figures in the article, and they add up to only 47.8% of respondents who said they tried to vote but were unable to do so.

What was the problem for the majority, for the other 52.2%? Were they blocked from reaching the polling station by flooding? (If so, was the flood arranged by the CPP government?) Or were they intimidated by the racist mobs that surrounded some polling stations at the urging of CNRP leaders, preventing ethnic minority Cambodians from entering?

More unanswered questions concern the 15.2% who said they were blocked from voting by polling officials. Since polling officials are hired by the commune, it would be good to know what percentage of these incidents happened in communes where the CPP is a majority of the commune council and what percentage where the CNRP has the majority. Were these blocked voters offered any reason for being blocked? If so, was the reason a valid one or not?

More questions – not about the survey, but about the attitude and/or knowledge of the NDI – are raised by Thornton’s comments to the Daily in which she accuses the NEC of preventing political parties’ access to the voters list. The accusation is simply bizarre. Voters lists are publicly displayed at every commune office for several months before the election. They can be freely accessed by anyone. Can the NDI be unaware of this? Or does it simply not care about facts?

In any case, the behaviour of the opposition indicates that it really isn’t interested in the voters list. When the list was being officially updated at the end of last year, the Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party both boycotted the entire process.

This kind of contradiction and confusion doesn’t instil much confidence that US democracy is going to be a hit in Cambodia this time around either. But we can at least be thankful that the NDI doesn’t – yet – have any B-52s.

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