Opposition stands good chance in Cambodia elections Observers say vote could oust strongman Hun Sen

July 26, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Just three weeks ago, opposition leaders were on the verge of boycotting the general election set for today, claiming that a campaign of manipulation and violence by Cambodia's leader, Hun Sen, had made a free vote impossible.

But a boisterous, monthlong campaign has turned the situation here upside down. Enthusiastic rallies and internal party polls suggest that two major opposition parties enjoy considerable support among the country's 5.4 million voters.

Diplomats say that if Hun Sen does not win the election, he might turn the tables on his critics and be the one to claim that the vote had not been free and fair.

On the eve of the country's first parliamentary election in five years, the outcome was suddenly impossible to predict. Hun Sen's two harshest critics, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, have attracted broad support in their campaigns against him.

Today's vote has drawn more than 600 foreign election observers and more than $12 million in foreign funds. It is seen in part as a test of the democratic system that was introduced here five years ago at a cost of more than $2 billion in an international effort organized by the United Nations.

It is also seen as a referendum on the rule of Hun Sen, who muscled his way into a coalition with Ranariddh after losing the last election, then ousted the prince in a coup a year ago.

Despite the coup, the reported killings of some 100 opposition leaders, the government's near-monopoly over radio and television, and pressure by local leaders to vote for the governing Cambodian People's Party, many Cambodians say they plan to vote against the current leadership.

Diplomats and international observers who have talked with people around the country in recent weeks say relatively few voiced support for Hun Sen's party.

"The paradox of the whole process is that, while we have seen a political campaign that is patently not free and fair, it is far from clear that that will be reflected in the polls," said a Western election observer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"All indications are that voters are keen to vote according to their own will and that opposition parties are drawing a lot of sympathy."

If people do vote freely, analysts said, the key questions will be whether there will be fraud in the handling of ballots and whether the losers will accept the results.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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