WITH controversy tainting the UN-monitored election process, renewed attacks by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and political factions grasping for power before a new national assembly takes over, the United Nations is struggling to salvage more than a semblance of success for its mission in Cambodia.
The latest political wrangle came when officials in the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) demanded that an impartial panel - without UN connections - be named to investigate claims of widespread election irregularities, and threatened not to recognize the results of the May 23-24 vote. The CPP protest struck many observers as a desperate act by demagogues refusing to accept a second finish to the pro-royalist party known by the acronym FUNCINPEC.
In addition, UN officials said yesterday that as many as 200 Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked Pakistani peacekeepers in the southeastern province of Prey Veng. It was the largest attack linked to the guerrilla group since before the election.
The UN mission in Cambodia has neared the crumbling point several times during the past year. The most glaring failures came with the inability to disarm and demobilize the combatants, and with the Khmer Rouge withdrawal from the peace process.
Earlier Khmer Rouge attacks on peacekeepers have also jeopardized the mission. In particular, attacks on Japanese troops led to domestic protest in Japan to end its leading role in the mission. The UN said yesterday that Japanese police forces would be among the first peacekeepers to leave on June 15.
The Phnom Penh government, installed by Hanoi in 1979 after the Vietnamese invaded to end the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule, also has subverted the peace plan. Before the elections the government carried out a flagrant campaign of violence and intimidation to try to ensure victory.
Given these problems, getting a large voter turnout became a vital step to save a foundering peace process.
Not only did the heavy turnout lend credibility to the country's first multiparty elections in 21 years, but it gave international observers hope that Cambodians wanted to use their voting rights to mold a better future.
When returns showed the ruling party trailing FUNCINPEC, however, fears of insurrection among government security forces eclipsed the spirit of democracy.
Results from valid regular ballots - about 79 percent of the vote - showed FUNCINPEC with 45.2 percent and the CPP with 38.6 percent.
The makeup of the 120-member assembly that will write a new constitution is expected to be finalized in a few days after ballots requiring special verification are counted.
While votes were still being counted, Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the CPP announced the birth of an interim government intended to bring together the ruling party and FUNCINPEC under the former monarch's leadership.
Premier Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Sihanouk's son and leader of FUNCINPEC, were to be deputy prime ministers. But the new government was short-lived because Prince Ranariddh refused to accept equal status with Hun Sen following FUNCINPEC's strong showing.
Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan sent a letter yesterday to Sihanouk expressing support for his attempts to bring the former foes together. The Khmer Rouge's entry into such a reconciliation government jumbles the political puzzle, however, because the CPP refuses to deal with the guerrillas.
All of this maneuvering raises concerns that the democratic process here was just a charade to satisfy foreign aid requirements while the government returns to business as usual: leadership forged through finagling among the same players who oversaw the near destruction of the country and now want a piece of its future.
The people, meanwhile, indicate they are afraid to give themselves over totally to democracy.
Iv Thong, professor of management at the Institute of Science and Economics in Phnom Penh, said he favored a Sihanouk-led government even if it wasn't based on the election outcome.
"People are worried about winners and losers," he said. "The winners may be good or not good. But the losers will be much angrier."