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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 04:46 GMT
Cambodia looks ahead
Queue at polling station
Many Cambodians are still fearful of change
Jonathan Head

This is the third election to take place in Cambodia since the Paris peace agreement of 1991 which brought an end to decades of war and revolution - and it could be the most important.

The two parliamentary elections of 1993 and 1998 brought a multi-party political system into being, but did little to challenge the dominance of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) - the old communist party installed by Vietnam after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 - because of its continued control over the security forces and over local government.


For the first time in living memory, this election has presented Cambodia's villagers with a choice over who runs their communities

Memories of the traumatic years under the Khmer Rouge, and the brutal civil war that followed it, are still fresh enough to make many Cambodians very fearful of change.

A lack of education, combined with almost no independent media in the villages, means the 80% of Cambodians who live in rural areas have little awareness of any alternative to the party which has ruled their lives over the past 23 years.

For the first time in living memory, this election has presented Cambodia's villagers with a choice over who runs their communities.

Opposition campaigns

With so much at stake, the three main parties played to their strengths during the campaign. The royalist Funcinpec party provided little in the way of policies, and ran a haphazard campaign.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy
Rainsy: Thinly disguised attacks on the Vietnamese
Its one asset is its association with King Sihanouk, who is still revered by millions of Cambodians. But it may have thrown that advantage away by the refusal of the party leader Prince Ranariddh to take part in party rallies.

The other main opposition group, the Sam Rainsy Party, (SRP) ran a more energetic campaign, with much of the energy coming from its tireless leader, Sam Rainsy himself, who is the closest thing Cambodia has to a modern politician.

In his trademark white shirt and owlish spectacles, Mr Rainsy travelled the length and breadth of the country, preaching a populist platform of anti-corruption and thinly-disguised attacks on the Vietnamese, whose links with the ruling party make it vulnerable to nationalist criticism.

A wealthy, French-educated idealist, Sam Rainsy believes passionately in democracy, human rights, and the power of vitamins to heal people and win votes.

To that end his party has distributed more than half-a-million small packets of vitamin pills, a practice that could be construed by some as vote-buying.

Abuses

The CPP has scarcely bothered to campaign at all, but then it has not needed to. It has controlled every commune for the past 23 years, which means its appointed officials exercise enormous influence over the lives of ordinary Cambodians.

Prime Minister Hun Sen
Hun Sen has refused to campaign or vote

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a great survivor who served under the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese administration that followed it, refused to campaign or even to vote, insisting he should remain neutral.

But just four days before the election he presided over the opening ceremony for a bridge construction project, to which more than 5,000 villagers were trucked in by the army.

His message, that Cambodians should not put at risk the stability and development they have enjoyed over the past decade, was not lost on his captive audience.

Commune chiefs have been accused of numerous abuses of their power, ranging from subtle warnings not to vote for the opposition, to outright involvement in the murder of opposition candidates.

In one village I visited, the commune chief ordered everyone to a long meeting on the day Funcinpec was campaigning, so they would have no-one to canvass.

In another village I was told people would all vote for the ruling party because they believed it was the only one which could build them a new road.

Improvement

Despite that, turnout was impressive, with long queues snaking around the polling stations from the early hours of the morning. Early indications are of surprisingly few hitches, and of relaxed and organised voting procedures.


A new generation of Cambodians are less traumatised and more forward-looking than their parents

Independent monitors were more concerned over how free people felt to vote against the ruling party, given the levels of intimidation and violence in some areas.

They acknowledge that this election is an improvement over the last parliamentary election in 1998, but they say it still far from perfect.

Cambodia has come a long way from the dark years of the 1970s and 80s. It faces immense challenges, from chronic corruption, to habitual violence and an abundance of guns, to a growing Aids epidemic.

Yet it is a more prosperous, cheerful and more settled society than it was when the UN first arrived at the end of 1991.

A new generation of Cambodians are less traumatised and more forward-looking than their parents.

Cambodia is proof that the international community can play a central role in helping rebuild even the most seriously damaged countries - but it is proof too that this will always be a slow, expensive and sometimes disappointing process.

See also:

03 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Voting over in key Cambodia poll
01 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia's democratic experiment
24 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Opposition candidate shot dead in Cambodia
24 Jul 98 | Cambodia
Cambodia's troubled history
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