Cambodia aims for calm poll

Sunday's elections will test the effectiveness of international aid money.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Since Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, countries around the world have poured billions of dollars into this small Southeast Asian nation.

Much of that aid has gone toward fostering democracy. On the eve of the country's third national election on Sunday, observers will be watching to see if all that assistance is paying off.

"We have yet to see a smooth transfer of power," says Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a monitoring group. "That's why we still question the democracy here."

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Cambodia's national elections have had a rocky history. Even with the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world present during its first election in 1993, the polls were still marked by killings and violence. The turbulence was quieted only when the king brokered a power-sharing agreementbetween two rival parties, creating two prime ministers.

The lead-up to the national elections in 1998, which saw rising tensions between first-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and second-Prime Minister Hun Sen, erupted in a violent coup by forces loyal to Hun Sen that sent Prince Ranariddh into temporary exile.

"When Cambodians hear about elections, they think about what's going to happen if the [Hun Sen's] ruling party loses," Mr. Panha says. "They don't know what kind of problem they'll have and how big."

Last year, Cambodia held its first local elections, which were widely applauded by human rights groups and election monitors for the decrease in violence compared with previous polls.

But Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) swept the election, winning the top seats in over 98 percent of the commune councils in the country, and monitors complained about widespread voter intimidation and coercion, as well as the CPP's monopoly on the media.

This year, human rights groups and election monitors are echoing some of the same praise for decreasing levels of violence. But with threats, intimidation, and vote- buying still rampant, they're worried that the ruling party has simply shifted its approach.

"The strategy has moved from blatant violence to more subtle strategies that capitalize on the widespread fear people have - especially in the countryside - about their livelihood," says Sara Colm in Cambodia, senior researcher for the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Elections have been so violent in the past, there's no longer a necessity for violence to be carried out," she says.

An HRW report released last week alleged that the ruling party is relying on a local grass-roots network, developed in the 1980s under the country's communist leadership, to engage in a "campaign of threats and intimidation by local officials" - a claim supported by Cambodia's two national election monitors.

The findings are sure to provide fuel for some US lawmakers and other opposition supporters who say the only way to bring about real democracy in Cambodia is through a "regime change."

In a speech to fellow lawmakers last month, US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said:

"Despite the billions of dollars spent on elections in that country - over $2 billion by the UN alone - there has yet to be a credible poll."

Senator McConnell gave the speech on the day Cambodia's month-long election campaign kicked off, while introducing a bill to Congress that would increase aid to Cambodia by 50 percent if Hun Sen is voted out of office.

The Senate's Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired byMcConnell, is seeking to restrict funds to the Cambodian central government in the coming year, and to provide $7 million to democratic opposition political parties in the country.

This would contrast with the current US position not to fund political parties in Cambodia, a spokesperson at the US Embassy in Cambodia said.

US aid to the country has long been a sensitive issue. It became more so after a US democracy worker was wounded in a grenade attack in 1998. The following year, funding to Cambodia reached an all-time low.

But after US funding to Cambodia bottomed out, China began sending a stream of top leaders to Phnom Penh, and drastically increased military and other aid to the country. That same year, US aid levels began to rise again, and have steadily increased ever since.

Ruling party leaders who hail the election campaign as a success have dismissed the senator's proposed legislation, as well as election criticism.

And they question what they perceive as attempts to influence the election's outcome, while vowing to promote democratic principals.

"They say, 'Choose your leaders in a democratic way,' then they go and say this," says Khieu Kanharith, a government spokesman.

But not all donor nations have expressed quite the same level of discontent with the pace of democratic progress in Cambodia.

One Western diplomat dismissed as "simplistic" the view that Cambodia needs a transfer of power, saying Cambodia's gradual transition could offer a "new model" for the region and the world.

The diplomat also downplayed the significance of the elections as a gauge of Cambodia's broader development progress.

On a recent visit, the United Nations special representative for human rights in Cambodia, Peter Leuprecht, called for election reforms, but he also urged the international community to look at Cambodia in a broader context.

"I do believe that last year's commune elections, although not perfect for a number of reasons, were better than the '98 elections," he said. "And I hope this year's elections will be better than last year's elections."

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