The developed nations that are bankrolling the rebuilding of Cambodia appear to believe that the country's best hope for stability lies with a formerly communist political party they once opposed.
The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) lost a general election in May 1993 but effectively forced its way into a coalition government with the victors, a noncommunist group known as FUNCINPEC, the acronym of its French name.
The result has been one of the world's most unusual forms of governance. FUNCINPEC's leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is called "first prime minister," while his CPP counterpart, Hun Sen, is known as "second prime minister. Many key bureaucracies are led by two "co-ministers," one from each party.
Now the country is slowly gearing up for another parliamentary election, set for 1998, and the CPP seems well-positioned to emerge from that contest as a single, dominant party.
"The Western countries and everybody else have concluded that Hun Sen is going to come out stronger and that it's better to try to democratize the CPP," says an Asian diplomat here.
"I suspect that there is a pragmatic mind-set among some of my colleagues along [those] lines," says another diplomat, insisting that his own country maintains strict neutrality in dealing with Cambodian political groups. But he adds that in the upcoming elections, "The smart money is on the CPP."
One Cambodian government source, who joined many of the people interviewed for this story in insisting on anonymity, offered an additional reason why the US in particular may be taking a softer line toward the CPP. He says that the party has decided to seek closer relations with the US should it win the coming elections. "We are going the American way," says the source.
The CPP's past
But "democratizing" the CPP may prove to be a difficult task. The party was virtually created and then put in power in 1979 by Vietnam, after that country invaded Cambodia and ended the regime of the Khmer Rouge, the Maoist revolutionaries who decimated Cambodia's population in attempting to create an agrarian utopia.
During the 1980s the CPP ran an authoritarian, communist-style state. Some observers believe the party has not changed very much since then. "They are still communists," says Kem Sokha, a member of the National Assembly who is one of the country's most prominent advocates of human rights and democratic reforms. "They think only the CPP should be in power."
In April, worried that Mr. Ranariddh and others were conspiring against him, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to use force to prevent the breakup of the ruling coalition. Some Cambodians believe that the party is responsible for the assassination and intimidation of several journalists in recent years, as well as some recent episodes of political violence, but party members deny these allegations.
Sar Kheng, a co-minister of interior and a top leader of the CPP, affirmed in an interview last week that the party is committed to multiparty democracy. He also argued that many members of the international community have reassessed the CPP in light of its participation in the 1993 elections and its stated commitment to holding local and national elections in 1997 and 1998, respectively.
"Every country has begun to change its mind toward the CPP," he said. But Sar Kheng, according to diplomats and other observers, is a moderate, softening influence in the party, someone who counters the more militaristic tendencies of party leader Hun Sen.
Hun Sen, a onetime Khmer Rouge cadre who later ran the Vietnamese-backed government, is widely believed to exert a good deal of personal control over the country's security forces. "Since the UN days he hasn't given anything back in terms of power.... It's still in his hands," says a senior official of a government in the region.
Even so, observers in Phnom Penh say Cambodia's major foreign backers increasingly see the CPP's emergence as a single ruling party as inevitable and in some ways desirable. Says human rights advocate Kem Sokha: "They think no political party can replace the CPP. They want to change the idea of the CPP to democracy."
Australia, France, Japan, Sweden and the US are the five top donors of development money. Representatives of these and other countries and major international organizations are meeting in Tokyo July 11-12 to review new requests by Cambodia for assistance. The donors are already committed to spending $760 million on a variety of projects and are expected to pledge another $940 million.
The donor countries and ordinary Cambodians alike are frustrated with the bifurcated leadership. Although conceived as a means toward national reconciliation after decades of strife, it has become a source of delayed decisionmaking and what one foreign observer calls "rival networks of corruption." And the process of reconciliation is by no means complete. The two parties have yet to resolve a bitter dispute over powersharing at the local level that flared this March.
"I think it will be good for Cambodia when it finally has one dominant party," this observer concludes. Some of the foreigners in Cambodia speak in longing terms about the need for governmental stability and efficiency, even if the speed of democratic reforms suffers in the process.
In contrast to FUNCINPEC, the CPP appears more unified and well-organized. The party's offices and signs are much more visible in the countryside than those of other groups. Hun Sen has been opening schools and hospitals funded by what he calls "donations" from business leaders in efforts to raise CPP popularity.
FUNCINPEC, meanwhile, has seen the defections of some of its most able and popular leaders. The Asian diplomat calls party leader Ranariddh "Alice in Wonderland" and says he is "quite starry-eyed" about his party's prospects in the upcoming elections.
One of FUNCINPEC's defectors, a French-trained accountant named Sam Rainsy, has formed a new political group that could well offer both the CPP and FUNCINPEC some stiff competition if it is allowed to compete in the next elections. The government has yet to recognize the new party, since a law on political parties is under consideration.
Mr. Rainsy's Khmer Nation Party has been capitalizing on FUNCINPEC's unfulfilled 1993 campaign promise to end communist rule. "The people wanted to get rid of the communists, but they didn't," says party secretary-general Khieu Rada.
At the same time, Rainsy has been playing to many Cambodians' longstanding enmity for Vietnam and for the Vietnamese immigrants in the country. This tactic does not play well with Cambodia's foreign backers, many of whom are interested in maintaining a stable Southeast Asia.
The three-year-old powersharing arrangement is increasingly looking like a bad decision to some FUNCINPEC members. Ahmed Yahya, a party member who holds a seat in the National Assembly, asks: "We won the election in 1993. Why do we have co-prime ministers? This mistake should not be repeated again and again."
It is also looking like a dangerous precedent. "If other political parties win the election, do you think the CPP will give up?" asks Kao Kim Hourn, the director of a government-backed think tank called the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. "No," he adds. "They will hang on."
Not to worry, responds the CPP's Sar Kheng. "There's no way just to respect the democratic process - we have to respect the results," he says.