Cambodians turned out en masse, in some cases mobbing polling stations, to vote in historic elections Sunday in hopes of giving the country a second chance at peace, stability and a legitimate government.
While a rebel attack in Anlong Veng marred an otherwise peaceful atmosphere, monitoring groups reported only scattered problems elsewhere in the country so far, fueling cautious hopes that Cambodia’s first self-organized, multi-party elections in three decades could be a success.
Counting begins today and partial results are expected as early as tonight, with the ruling CPP, the ousted Funcinpec and the upstart Sam Rainsy Party all hoping to lead what most expect will be another coalition government.
A smiling Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, surrounded by a mob of photographers, kissed his folded-up ballot before dropping it in the box in Takhmau just after the polls opened at 7 am.
Shortly thereafter, Takhmau housewife Sok Nim, 27, cast her own ballot. She broke into a broad grin outside the polling station when told her vote counted just as much as Hun Sen’s.
“It is good, very good. I am not afraid anymore,” she said. “Today, I have the same right as the prime minister.”
The National Election Committee estimated turnouts as high as 90 percent in some areas. Many voters dressed in their finest and were in line early, clutching voter identification cards. Later in the day, people greeted each other around the capital by waving their purple-stained index fingers.
Glenys Kinnock, the European Union’s chief observer, said by phone she was pleasantly surprised at the turnout, given reports of voter intimidation.
“There was an enormous enthusiasm by the voters…. The crush was fantastic,” said Kinnock, who visited polling stations in Kandal, Kompong Speu and Takeo provinces. “As always, the people will surprise you.”
International monitors reported few cases of violence, ballot stuffing or serious intimidation, she said, adding that reports “generally have been favorable.”
But, she warned, “It’s not time for euphoria either.” She said the counting process and acceptance of the results are still to come. “Now we go on to the next hurdle, the next series of hurdles.”
The present government’s legitimacy has been in question for the last year, since Funcinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh was deposed as first prime minister, ousted after two days of street battles in Phnom Penh.
The prince claimed Hun Sen seized sole power in a coup d’etat. Hun Sen claimed Prince Ranariddh was plotting his own coup with Khmer Rouge hard-liners. The UN has left Cambodia’s seat in the General Assembly vacant.
But it was a long, often rocky road that led to Sunday’s polls.
The July fighting sent many Funcinpec officials into exile, and scores of the party’s military and other officials were killed in the following months. Hun Sen insisted criminal charges of weapons smuggling and collusion with the Khmer Rouge would disqualify the prince from the poll.
The international community eventually helped yield a compromise to allow the prince to return. But as the election approached, voter intimidation and violence surfaced and opposition parties called for a postponement, saying voters could not feel free.
However much intimidation there might have been, the voters did turn out in large numbers Sunday—so much so that the most common problem reported was disorder caused by eager voters surging past election officials and into the polling station.
“I beg you all to please calm down! Form a line, don’t push,” begged an official at a polling station in Chhey Chhumneah School as voters mobbed the door after it opened. “You have all come to vote, not to fight.”
One older woman said she had been in line since 5:30 am. “The newcomers all pushed me back,” she complained. “It is not as easy as in Untac time.”
The poll represents Cambodia’s second experiment in democracy after decades of civil war and the trauma of the Khmer Rouge’s nearly four-year reign. The 1993 elections were administered by the UN after a $2 billion intervention effort aimed at breaking the cycle of war and establishing a legitimate government.
After the Funcinpec-CPP government collapsed, most began looking toward the next elections as chance to begin anew.
But much depends on the poll results being accepted by the international community, which holds the purse strings to the millions in foreign aid seen as vital to rebuilding the nation’s economy.
A preliminary report from the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, a national watchdog group, cautiously praised the process.
“Although numerous technical errors and some improprieties were committed, generally the polling seemed to have been successfully conducted,” Coffel President Meng Ho Leang said in a statement, though she cautioned findings may be revised.
With the voting over, monitoring groups are turning their attention to today’s start of counting, where many fear fraud.
After the results come in, deal-making is expected to begin as the winning party works to woo votes for a two-thirds parliamentary vote of confidence in a new government.
And some fear that if the vote does not go the CPP’s way and the winning parties try to exclude it from a coalition government, the long-ruling party may refuse to give up power, as it did in 1993.
The EU’s Kinnock said the voters’ enthusiasm for democracy demands a response from all involved in the elections. “Whatever people decide today, their wishes must be respected.” she said.