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Cambodians Ready for Upcoming Elections - 2002-01-31

In Cambodia, candidates in upcoming local elections have concluded a series of public debates, the first ever in the country's history. Election observers also have issued their final reports before Sunday's balloting.

A steamy auditorium in a working-class commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh bursts with people Thursday as the final campaign debate opens. Four candidates competing for seats on the communal council, two women and two men, stand on the stage. A Buddhist leader moderating the event, Heng Monychenda, outlines the rules of the debate.

Professor Heng explained each candidate has two minutes to explain his or her platform and two minutes to respond to each of four questions.

The questions, culled from a focus group that met earlier, concern bad roads and clogged drainage ditches, high water and electricity rates, and schools. They reveal the local nature of Sunday's vote, the first local elections in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge government in the 1970's.

The debates have been sponsored by Cambodian civic organizations and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute. Eric Kessler, an institute official, says the debates offer voters an opportunity to hear how the candidates plan to address issues that affect their lives.

"These debates have been a model of fair, equal and constructive campaigning that voters in Cambodia are asking for, and that many observers agree help bring Cambodia's elections closer to international standards," he said.

However, the National Election Commission refuses to let the debates be broadcast on radio and television. Thun Saray, an official with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, says his group is disappointed with the decision. He said the election commission, called NEC, is not maintaining its independence from the government.

"The NEC failed to facilitate the political parties to have access to the broadcast media for their electoral campaign. And this is a very big obstacle for this process, I think," he said.

Mr. Thun has said his group is relatively satisfied with the registration of candidates and voters, although he says it recorded more than 7,000 irregularities and estimates that one million eligible voters are not registered. He says the level of violence, though less than in previous elections, is still a concern and he urges the government to remain alert for incidents after the results are announced.

The two-week campaign period ends Friday, and the major parties plan to spend the day organizing large rallies in the Cambodian capital.