WITH the Khmer Rouge now firmly excluded from United Nations-supervised elections in May, Cambodia enters a new phase of its transition to democratic rule. The outcome depends on how well the two leading factions, the forces loyal to Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the communist government of Hun Sen, work together in a future government.
A main sticking point will be what to do about the Khmer Rouge, the radical Marxist group that seems content to be on the sidelines, at least for now.
Standing the best chance in the May election is the party of Prince Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Rannaridh. Officials of the party, known by its French acronym FUNCINPEC, say they will do well at the polls if the majority of Cambodians are convinced the vote will be a secret ballot.
But even with a FUNCINPEC victory, the communist government of Hun Sen will run a strong second. Hun Sen's government, which launched an offensive against the Khmer Rouge last week, says it wants to crush its archrivals for good as soon as it is militarily capable.
Sihanouk has said the Khmer Rouge should be included in the next government, even if it does not participate in the elections. He contends it is better to leave the door open for Khmer Rouge members to join in the political process than to exclude them, since that would ensure further fighting.
This political drama, more than any trouble the Khmer Rouge itself appears prepared to provoke in the countryside, is expected to decide what degree of stability or chaos this weary nation can expect in the near future. "The Khmer Rouge are not in a military position in the short-, medium-, or maybe even long-term to take over by military force," a Western analyst says.
Present in virtually every province as well as the capital city, Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge is clearly capable of disrupting the elections, but most analysts expect that it will choose not to because of the political risks involved.
Khmer Rouge leaders excluded themselves from the upcoming elections by failing to register their political party, Democratic Kampuchea, by the end of January, a UN deadline designed to allow three months of unhindered access necessary to create conditions for fair elections.
"I think it is more likely than not that the DK will not disrupt the election to the point of forcing its abandonment and the withdrawal of UNTAC [the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia]," said Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans after a trip into Cambodia last month.
To do so, he added, the Khmer Rouge would run the risk of provoking a "massive negative reaction from the international community, which is likely to take a very much more tough-minded approach than has been the case in their reaction to the non-cooperation so far."
Stricter sanctions would "almost certainly result in the complete effective cessation of DK economic activity," he said.
Despite a rash of kidnappings of UNTAC military officers and the shooting of Cambodian electoral workers, Mr. Evans insisted: "The evidence to date is that they have not mounted any kind of significant disruptive action against the electoral registration process even though it would have been comparatively easy for them to do so." More than 4.6 million of 5 million eligible voters have been registered by the UN.
By staying out of the peace process the Khmer Rouge has retained its 10,000-troop army intact, expanded its territory, and avoided risking electoral rejection.
It also maintains a "capacity to mount a sustained political campaign" aimed at taking advantage of the new government's shortcomings, Evans said.
"Their great hope comes from a scenario in which the government formed after the elections is not able to govern very effectively and ends up running into the same old problems of corruption, inefficiency, and lack of concern about rural roots - which creates the right sort of conditions for the Khmer Rouge to exploit," a Bangkok-based diplomat says.
While scores of election workers have been killed, political violence has tapered off in recent weeks since UNTAC beefed up its protection of party offices and established a special UN prosecutor's office.
"Realistically the conditions for a truly free and fair election cannot really be achieved, just some approximation of that," the diplomat says.
Even if full-scale war is avoided, the political situation after elections will be fragile. The UN is beginning to think of a establishing a presence that will stretch well beyond its current mandate, which ends in September.