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Cambodian Opposition Party Makes Gains in Local Elections - 2002-02-04

Unofficial results from Cambodia's elections last Sunday show that for the first time in more than three decades an opposition party will be governing some of the country's local communities. The party is the Sam Rainsy Party, which has built a following on a platform of battling authoritarianism and corruption.

The headquarters of the latest newcomer to Cambodian government sits in several one-story buildings on a dusty compound in central Phnom Penh. The buildings house party offices and an election monitoring center. The center is a cramped room with a half dozen computers, operated by a group of intense young cadres.

At times, the spry figure of party founder Sam Rainsy bounds across the compound - entering first one office to request some information and then another to deliver instructions.

Mr. Rainsy takes time from a strategy session to discuss his priorities. "People are so afraid. They have been living in fear and hunger," he said. "So the two problems that we have to address is fear and hunger."

Mr. Rainsy says other goals are to curb corruption; distribute aid more equitably; improve health and education services; and eliminate land grabbing. The son of a former deputy prime minister, the 52-year-old former bank director left a lucrative business career in Europe to re-enter Cambodian politics after the end of communism, in the early 1990s.

As a member of the royalist FUNCINPEC Party, he was elected to parliament in 1993 and appointed finance minister. But he was dismissed the following year, reportedly after launching a campaign against corruption.

He formed his own party, the Khmer Nation Party, in 1995, but was ousted from its leadership two years later in a maneuver he attributes to the ruling party.

In response, he formed a new party bearing his name, which contested the 1998 elections. The party won 15 seats in the National Assembly and seven seats in the Senate, making it the Cambodia's third-largest political force.

The Sam Rainsy Party draws its greatest support from workers in Cambodia's textile factories, businessmen and small vendors who are frustrated with government inefficiency and urban youth who are anxious about their future.

Mr. Rainsy says the biggest threat to Cambodia's future is the fact that it is not creating enough jobs for the hundreds of thousands of young people graduating from school each year. "We are heading toward big political and social problems unless we start to manage the economy in a more effective way," he said. "But this implies more democracy. It implies transparency, accountability, a more effective respect of the law, and in one word, we need democracy."

Observers say Mr. Rainsy now has a chance to carry out his pledge to tackle poverty, corruption and government inefficiency. And they say Cambodians now have a chance to evaluate how well he delivers.