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In Cambodia vote, stability wins

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled for 23 years, won another five-year term Sunday. His party has overseen several prosperous years; critics say it stifles democracy.

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Many in Cambodia would seem to agree with him, as evidenced by a poll released in May by the US-based International Republican Institute: 77 percent of Cambodians surveyed said they thought their country was on the right course under Sen's leadership.

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"If you look at the capacity of people in understanding the social contract, it's very limited. What they do see is performance," he adds, citing that the majority of Cambodia's 14 million people are poor farmers, who need better roads, wells, and other infrastructure.

A different form of democracy?

There is another camp, however, which vociferously disagrees, saying stability alone cannot be a substitute for democracy and that there cannot be one model of democracy for the developing world and another for the West.

"Democracy anywhere, in Europe, in North America, in Asia, must be the same. This is a universal principle," says Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, based in Phnom Penh.

She charges that the ruling party has furnished only the mirage of economic stability, while practically unleashing political and social cleavages that endanger the state.

The CPP has systematically bought off or silenced the opposition, she says, while poor people are being evicted from their land at an alarming rate, to forcibly clear the way for development projects that ultimately benefit the ruling elite.

"[Stability] is only a facade. You have a GDP increase, but look at the gap between rich and poor. More than 40 percent live below the standard of income," Ms. Galabro says. "We have very few in the middle class."

But if there is one point on which both sides of the debate agree, it is that Cambodia has gotten much better at elections, thanks to more than a decade of voter education programs, the presence of international observers, and better media to inform people of their rights.

The payoff was evident at a polling station in Tropeang Tom, where some 700 people cast their votes. In a steady stream beginning at 7 a.m., voters came on bicycle, car, and motorbike. Some walked. All left with an ink-stained index finger, the instrument of their democratic dispensation, then traversed muddy fields to return to work. The whole exercise took each person no more than 10 minutes.

Fractures weaken opposition

At this point in the counting, most of those inked fingers look to have chosen the CPP for another five years.

The main opposition Sam Rainsy Party came in second with 21 percent of the vote, election officials reported, and three other minority parties split the rest.

The four groups rejected the outcome, and accused the CPP of manipulating voter rolls to ensure their victory. "We call on the international community not to recognize the results because there were a lot of irregularities," said Kem Sokha, leader of the Human Rights Party and a longtime critic of the government.

Many observers say the opposition has only itself to blame. Internal conflicts have rendered the opposition weak in the eyes of the public.

Instead of banding together to confront Sen, they have squabbled and missed opportunities, some analysts say. So voters have chosen the stronger party.

"Why didn't they all [work] with each other when it was important? Voters have sent a very clear message to the opposition. You are divided; you lose votes," says Sopheak Ok Serei, a political analyst in Phnom Pehn.