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.
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.
That election saw the party put forward 148 candidates for 117 seats. A second election scheduled for 1986 was postponed by the party. Since then, there have been a few single-district polls to fill vacated seats.
A 1987 race in Kompong Chhnang, for instance, pitted the leader of the province's political front for women against a male district party chief who is a minority Muslim. Both candidates were hand-picked by Sim, and the female candidate won easily.
``We distributed their biographies and gave them a month to make speeches,'' says Toch Yoeun, vice chief of the province's cabinet. ``If we had more than one party, it would just lead to bickering.
``We must have one, patriotic party. But year by year, we will have more democracy. Whether the leaders will listen or not is another thing.''
Last March, the resistance coalition under Sihanouk called for ``a pluralistic parliamentary regime, a regime of noncommunists, Western democracy, and free enterprise in Cambodia after her liberation.''
By urging a multiparty system in communist Cambodia, the West, in alliance with China, is in effect trying to have Sihanouk part of a power-sharing settlement. Ironically, during his long rule, elections for the legislature were tightly controlled by Sihanouk to favor his party.
``We recognize Sihanouk's merits of the past,'' says Cham Prasith, a deputy minister in Phnom Penh. ``And he can help us break the diplomatic and economic embargo. We need him to get Western money.
``Our Constitution allows more than one party,'' adds Mr. Prasith, a close aid to Prime Minister Hun Sen. ``But our party is the core, and any other party must follow us.''
The push for a multiparty system is just ``a plot by Western countries to use overseas Cambodians to win an election,'' he says.
The KPRP will hold a party plenum in December, when it may decide to approve the selection of more nonparty candidates. The plenum will be followed by the assembly meeting in December or January, which will dissolve to allow for the largely orchestrated election.
``We will have some democracy,'' Prasith says. But in comparison to the diverse political trends being seen in communist nations, ``We will take the middle way,'' he adds.
One sign of official attitudes toward events in Eastern Europe came this month in a visit by a group of journalists from Poland's Solidarity trade union, which took most of the Communist Party's power in a June 4 election. The journalists were given a very cool reception here.
A multiparty system is still ``premature'' for Cambodia, a Soviet diplomat says.
``You cannot expect active support of the regime, because the economic development of the people is so low. But the people are content as long as they are not suppressed,'' the diplomat adds.
At a big party conference last April, he says, a decision was made to avoid a multiparty system and instead involve more nonparty Cambodians in the government without jeopardizing the party's ``leading role.''
``Leading party or no leading party, it is not important,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Run Rong. ``If one party wins the election, it will lead the country.''
``We already have pluralism,'' he claims. ``One party controls the country, but the others choose to stay outside. They must come here to solve the problem.''
A special constitutional committee, lead by Sim, is considering taking out the phrase that refers to the KPRP as the country's leading party. But ``only after a settlement can we really change it,'' Mr. Rong says.