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Campaigning Winds Down as Cambodians Prepare for Election - 2003-07-25


Cambodia voters will have a day of rest from electioneering before heading to the polls on Sunday. Election observers are saying the campaign's atmosphere is better than previous elections, but significant problems remain.

Election watchdog groups and international observers praise the 2003 campaign as an improvement over previous ones, but add that Cambodian electoral politics is still marred by threats, violence, and voter intimidation. But no one is willing to publicly say if that means this election is fatally flawed.

In a pre-election assessment, two election-monitoring groups, COMFREL and NICFAC, say politically motivated killings and intimidation of voters have declined since the last general polls in 1998. But Kek Galabru of the Cambodian election-monitoring group NICFEC says there was enough intimidation during this campaign to be worrisome.

"It is difficult to say if it is free because the climate now is the climate of fear, you see? So it is very difficult," he explained.

Thirty-one people were killed in election-related violence, and the death toll is almost evenly split among the top three parties, 11 dead from the ruling Cambodian Peoples' Party, 11 from the Sam Rainsy party, and nine from the royalist Funcinpec Party.

But, of the three parties, human rights groups and election observers say much of the blame rests with the Cambodian Peoples' Party, which controls not only the machinery of government, but a well-oiled political apparatus.

George Fulsom, president of the International Republican Institute, which has sent election monitoring teams throughout the country, says the body count, as he puts it, is not the clearest indicator of the electoral climate.

"While there appear to be fewer people who have been actually killed, the intimidation is more sophisticated, relating just not to physical intimidation, but economic intimidation," he said. " For example, unless you comply, you will not get your permit for your hog farm."

Cambodian observer groups say about 400,000 people of the 1.5 million eligible new voters were unable to register to vote, in large part due to complicated registration procedures. Kek Galabru says this underscores the need for an independent and non-partisan National Election Commission.

Human rights groups also say the parties have, to varying degrees, handed out everything from rice to T-shirts to cash to win votes. The Sam Rainsy Party has offered cash rewards to people who report attempts by other party workers to buy votes.