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Cambodia Rulers Seek Global Support With National Election

Multi-candidate ballot to be held amid guerrilla war

By Clayton JonesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 1989


FOR Cambodia's 8 million peasants, casting ballots even as bullets crisscross their country might seem premature. But a plan for a legislative election amid guerrilla conflict is the political armor the ruling Marxist-Leninist party hopes will help win a long war.

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The vote, which would elect a 145-member National Assembly, is expected next February or March, and will be watched closely by Western nations.

The election will offer several candidates for each seat, but only one party. It is hardly democratic by Western standards.

Chea Sim, a senior Politburo member, is perhaps the most powerful person in Cambodia today. He is expected to sit down soon with close comrades and check off from a list of possible candidates for the election those who are acceptable - and those who are not.

Voters in Cambodia's 12,960 villages and four cities will then be given a choice, but with no likelihood that the ruling Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) will lose control. Nationally the party has nearly 30,000 members and about 170,000 affiliate members.

That the election may be largely for international consumption is borne out by talks with Cambodian peasants.

``I don't know what the National Assembly is or who are the people in it,'' says Khem Savarn, a Kompong Speu resident. ``But I now live in this regime and it is helping me.''

Such comments make the KPRP feel secure enough to call an election. Only party leaders ``have sensed the pulse of society'' and ``are capable of rebuilding the national society,'' says Mr. Sim, who heads the assembly's standing committee and the party-led front organization.

But depending on how many candidates are not party members, and how the election is conducted, leaders of nations that do not recognize the regime in Cambodia might change that policy.

``International pressure is rising for the government to allow more democracy,'' says a former Australian diplomat working here. ``If this election is like the one held recently in the Soviet Union [in which many top Communist Party leaders lost legislative seats], then many Western countries might seriously look at recognizing the government.''

Only Soviet-bloc nations and India recognize the Phnom Penh government. China, the United States, and noncommunist nations maintain a diplomatic and economic blockade of the regime, installed a decade ago after Vietnam invaded to oust the Khmer Rouge regime.

Most nations supported the anti-Phnom Penh guerrilla coalition by voting to give it the Cambodian seat at the United Nations. The three-faction coalition, nominally led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, relies for its military threat on the still-dreaded Khmer Rouge. Prince Sihanouk is Cambodia's former monarch.

With an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 fighters, the Khmer Rouge have made slow advances into Cambodia from their border camps near Thailand, following last month's failed peace talks and final pullout of Vietnamese regular troops. They captured the western outpost of Pailin over the weekend.

In holding an election that might break its isolation from the West, Phnom Penh hopes to undercut political and military support for the guerrillas. At home, it also sees itself in a popularity contest with Sihanouk, claiming it will soon reach the same levels of prosperity as seen during his 1954-70 rule. Sihanouk and Khmer Rouge guerrillas are setting up spy networks to counter effects of the election, officials say.

The last nationwide election for the assembly, a body that mainly ratifies party decisions, was in 1981, just two years after the country started to recover from the disastrous Khmer Rouge rule.