In Cambodia, Democracy for a Day

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For one sanguine Sunday, anyway, Cambodians were convinced they lived in a democracy. In the rural villages, makeshift polling stations teemed with eager voters: old women in native flower-print dresses, young men in American baseball hats, wizened fishermen with more hopes than teeth. Illiterate farmers left their rice fields to find their way into whitewashed schoolhouses; they borrowed eyeglasses, made their mark, and receded. Many of the voters equated voting with change, and change with peace. After the purges of Pol Pot and a decade of civil war, peace is what Cambodia hungers for, and it has not come under Hun Sen, the military strongman who came to power in a bloody coup a year ago. These were the first parliamentary elections in five years. They promised peace through choice.

Go to the capital of Phnom Penh, and it is clear that Cambodia is no one-party state. There is Prince Norodom Ranariddh -- elected prime minister in 1993 but pushed out of power by Hun Sen -- and his royalist party, dangling the lure of the golden past when his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, ruled in the 1960s. There is thin, bespectacled Sam Rainsy, whose party decries both the prince and Hun Sen. Then there are 36 other parties. The prince and Rainsy both promise peace, change and justice, their way; both commanded throngs of supporters on the campaign trail. And now, as the preliminary results trickle in, both are claiming that this election was stolen by Hun Sen.

International observers weren't ready to agree -- most seemed satisfied that the election was honest. But that perception creaked a little on Tuesday, when Hun Sen declared a sweeping victory for his bloc after only a tiny fraction of the votes had been tallied. It creaked a little more on Wednesday when, upon realizing that his Cambodian People's Party's margin of victory looked to be far slimmer that he had predicted, Hun Sen threatened to amend the constitution to ensure that his party would not have to share power.

The proof of a living, breathing democracy comes when it changes hands, and this does not now seem likely to happen in Cambodia. It is hardly a surprise. U.N. officials say Hun Sen's power grab a year ago included the killing of more than 100 political opponents; he controls the media, the police and the army, and many diplomats describe a month-long campaign of intimidation that preceded Sunday's election. Under Hun Sen, incumbency is a powerful thing. "I wish to call on all political parties to honor the determination of our people," Hun Sen said Wednesday. "Winning or losing is normal as far as democracy is concerned. No one wins all the time." Hollow condolences from one unaccustomed to defeat.