The Axis of the Republican Right
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Thursday, January 28, 2021


The Axis of the Republican Right

By Tom Fawthrop/Phnom Penh AUG, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.7

American journalist Rich Garella was a communications officer for the Sam Rainsy Party during Cambodia’s 1998 elections and a consultant for the International Republican Institute in 2003. He was neither a member of SRP nor the communications chief for IRI of as incorrectly identified in "The Axis of the Republican Right" [Vol 11, No7]. In the said article, IRI’s pre-election assessment never declared the election would not be free and fair, and IRI President George Folsom was responsible for export control issues under the Reagan administration and never dealt with Cambodia or Vietnam.

Hun Sen overcame all challengers in Cambodia’s elections in July, including a bid in Washington to unseat him.

In the post-Iraq world order, the Republican Right in Washington relish the idea of "regime change" and expanding the list of governments and regimes they seek to overturn. The country need not be recognizably part of a so-called "axis of evil" with a suspected nuclear capability to become a target. Nobody thinks Hun Sen’s Cambodia has nuclear potential, yet his name is on the list of some senators.

But since October last year, Republican Senator and Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Mitch McConnell, and his close associates in the International Republican Institute have thrown their considerable political weight and some financial resources behind the election campaign of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

In the run-up to the July 27th election—Cambodia’s third general election since the departure of the UN peacekeeping mission in 1993—McConnell and his chief aide, Paul Grove, called for regime change in a series of editorials in news publications around the world. McConnell announced this past February that only a victory by the "democratic opposition" would be an acceptable result. In June, he and two colleagues introduced the "Cambodia Democracy and Accountability Act", which provides for resuming full foreign assistance to Cambodia, provided that elections are "free and fair" and "that Prime Minister Hun Sen is no longer in power." Insisting that only a defeat for the ruling party is proof of a "free and fair" election is surely a novel definition of democracy.

In spite of voters being constantly reminded by the opposition that voting for Hun Sen will jeopardize US $21.5 million in development aid, the ploy didn’t work. Provisional election results show that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) still won, with more than 47% of the vote and about 73 seats under a system of proportional representation. Sam Rainsy and his party are expected to end up with 24 seats.

The EU election observer team concluded that the balloting "was a well-conducted election but still a little way to go before Cambodia reaches full democracy."

Some low-level intimidation by village chiefs tarnished what was otherwise a clean election. International and local election observers hailed the process as a further step towards strengthening democracy. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) only the Philippines, Thailand and possibly Indonesia after Suharto can boast of stronger democratic roots and institutions.

George Folsom, president of the International Republican Institute (IRI), was less sanguine when he characterized Cambodia as "Zimbabwe on the Mekong." But such scorn ignores that Cambodia’s opposition parties campaigned freely and won a total of 50 seats out of the 123 seat National Assembly; in Zimbabwe, most of the opposition lives in terror or behind bars.

IRI poses as a non-partisan organization that promotes democracy around the globe and trains political parties in all aspects of elections. A casual survey of IRI’s board of directors, however, reads like a Who’s Who of neo-conservative ideologists and longtime supporters of US imperial might, including Senator John McCain, former Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick and Alison Fortier of the Lockheed Martin Missile Defense Program.

The IRI is funded from USAID and taxpayers money via the National Endowment for Democracy but does not represent official US policy. The US State Department and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh have been careful to distance themselves from the more extreme statements of McConnell and the IRI.

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