- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

PNOM PENH, Cambodia More than 5 million Cambodians are registered to vote in village elections Sunday, the first in decades, which have drawn some 80,000 candidates representing eight political parties.

As in more recent national-level elections of the 1990s, several candidates have disappeared mysteriously in the past few weeks and their corpses have been found days later floating in the mighty Mekong River.

They have included candidates from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party as well as the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, 52, the country's former communist strongman.

In a true test of grass-roots democracy in this ancient but youthful country where 45 percent of the 12 million people are younger than 15 and the voting age is 18 voters are being asked to elect their neighbors in 1,621 "communes" (a French term for the lowest government level). More than 10,000 positions such as commune chief, deputy chief, and varying numbers of council members, depending on the community's size are up for grabs in Sunday's village polls, the first since Gen. Lon Nol seized power in a 1970 coup.

The campaign officially began two weeks ago and was to end today.

These closely watched polls mark a major shift in Cambodia's political system by decentralizing power from the national to the local level. To some observers, the CPP seems to be making guarded concessions to these new democratic challenges. The reality is simple: Whoever controls the communes controls the country.

Despite intimidation at the hands of CPP-appointed bosses who now hold power at the grass-roots level, most foreign and Cambodian observers expect voter turnout to be high.

The question is not whether the elections will be free of more violence or undermined by fraud American observers saw this film replayed before, during Cambodia's general elections in 1993 and 1998, both won by Hun Sen's CPP.

It is: What happens if the ruling party loses seats and control of the countryside? Will it usher in changes?

In the small, scattered villages among the crush of military truck convoys blaring campaign speeches over bullhorns and hundreds of motorbikes streaming political banners some brave Cambodians are taking to the streets to show their political support for opposition parties. Meanwhile, thousands of others watch in fear from the shadows of their doorways.

But many Cambodians are old enough to remember being pushed along the same bumpy, potholed streets out of Phnom Penh and smaller towns a quarter-century ago, when everybody was marched off to the "Killing Fields" by the Khmer Rouge, and more than 1 million died to satisfy the mad theories of Pol Pot.

But it is no longer Year Zero declared by the radical communist Khmer Rouge when they overthrew the U.S.-backed military regime and overran the capital on April 17, 1975, announcing that more than 2,000 years of Cambodian history had come to an end.

The Khmer Rouge eliminated religion, education, medical care and urban life in its campaign to turn back the clock, and attacked communist Vietnam seeking to restore Cambodia's ancient borders.

Battle-hardened Vietnam invaded, drove the Khmer Rouge deep into the jungles and in January 1979 installed a Cambodian communist regime friendlier to itself.

The turning point on Cambodia's road to Sunday's polls came in 1993, when elections were organized by the United Nations with thousands of observers, 22,000 U.N. troops and some $2 billion to end Cambodia's civil war.

The result was a victory for the royalist National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (known by its French acronym FUNCINPEC), led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a son of King Sihanouk. The CPP led by Hun Sen came in second. An uneasy coalition government was formed and a new constitution drawn up, re-establishing Cambodia as a monarchy.

"Cambodians consider commune government to be even more important to their lives than the national government," said George Folsom, president of the International Republican Institute, who is now in Phnom Penh with 16 others from IRI as an election observer.

"Responsive democratic government at the local level can improve their everyday lives, where repressive regimes have failed them for 30 years," Mr. Folsom added.

Cambodia's most vocal opposition politician, Sam Rainsy, leader of the party named after himself, drew a reported 5,000 supporters to a park opposite the Cambodian parliament last week.

"Cambodia is ready for change, and Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, which controls all commune-level posts, will be defeated on election day," Sam Rainsy thundered.

With Prince Ranariddh expected to succeed his ailing father Sihanouk as king, FUNCINPEC is essentially a royalist patronage vehicle and is unlikely to become a serious democratic alternative or political threat to Hun Sen's CPP.

On the other hand, the Sam Rainsy Party appears to have the potential to appeal for grass-roots democracy outside its present narrow, urban, middle-class, educated protest base in Phnom Penh. Some observers speculate that Sunday's village elections could be a good barometer for testing the depth of support for Sam Rainsy's all-but-announced entry into national elections scheduled to be held in 2003.

"These elections are very important to the development of democracy in Cambodia. Until recently the commune officials were all appointed by the ruling party. These new elections will, at least in part, break the stranglehold of the CPP at the commune level and permit the further development of civil society in Cambodia," said Dana Dillon, here as an election observer from the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

The United States enacted a law in 1998 to punish Hun Sen for his poor record on democracy and human rights, and Washington is prohibited from direct economic assistance to Cambodia.

Meanwhile, facing new rivalries, China seeks friends in the region. A drive down Phnom Penh's Mao Tse-tung Boulevard confirms its neighborly interest, from the new sewer system, highway construction, bridges, schools, the Phnom Penh Market to a new $30 million hydropower station.

"It appears that when the U.S. severed aid to Cambodia, China seized a strategic opportunity to wield influence, economically and politically," said Kao Kim Hourn of the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh.

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