A gamble with democracy
Stability or democracy? That is the alarming choice in Cambodia as the results of Sunday's national elections degenerate into confusion.
A frustrated international community clearly wants stability in the region's poorest nation and is willing to accept an imperfect electoral process under 'Cambodian conditions' to get it.
Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh are bearing the torch for a far more pure form of democracy in an increasingly desperate bid to stave off five more years in the political wilderness.
Preliminary approval of the polls from the international community and early unofficial results suggesting a swing towards strongman Hun Sen's former communist Cambodian Peoples' Party (CCP) have proved too much for either man to bear.
The combination represents their worst fears - defeat in a credible election that finally puts an official seal on Mr Hun Sen's 18-year stranglehold on power.
While legitimising a leader they see as violent and dictatorial, it could also free up US$40 million (HK$310 million) aid from the United States, Japan, and international agencies such as the World Bank.
A decidedly conciliatory tone from both Mr Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh on polling day was soon forgotten when it appeared the CPP was likely to win. Their concern is such that they have set a highly intriguing gamble in motion.
Long before official counts were announced, they teamed up for the first time in years to cry foul, warning of widespread ballot manipulation and counting irregularities.
'We are not going to be the democratic alibi for Hun Sen,' Mr Rainsy told the Post as he walked away from the prince's rented home in central Phnom Penh.
'There will be demonstrations and upheaval.' Mr Rainsy, never afraid to whip up a crowd, may not be wrong. The pair have threatened to boycott the upcoming session of Cambodia's parliament - a move which could spark chaos.
Mr Hun Sen will need coalition partners to take power. And their refusal to participate could create a situation where no one can legally do that under a constitution that requires control of two-thirds of the Assembly's 122 seats to rule.
'This is far more than the Cambodian constitution can handle . . . they are effectively forcing a situation where no one can legally take power,' one veteran Asian diplomat said during emergency meetings yesterday to try to force a compromise.
'God knows what would happen then. Both Rainsy and the prince have moved far too early. They've angered and insulted the international community and only raised the prospect of Mr Hun Sen ignoring the democratic process to keep power - and if they are not careful, he may actually have some sympathy this time.' At the nub of the situation is the election itself. The weeks and months leading up to it may have been studded with claims of CPP violence, intimidation and control of the independent commission governing the poll. But the day itself was calm and largely clean.
More than 90 per cent of the 5.4 million Cambodian eligible voters turned out for the country's first locally organised poll - a figure which clearly buoyed both domestic and international observers.
'What we have witnessed is a successful exercise in self-determination,' gushed Stephen Solarz, a former US congressman and head of combined Democrat and Republican monitoring efforts.
Mr Solarz, one of Mr Hun Sen's fiercest critics in the wake of the bloody coup that pushed then First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh from power, went as far as to describe it as a possible 'Miracle on the Mekong'.
Mr Rainsy spits with anger at such remarks, repeating his mantra that international monitoring efforts were 'too little, too late' and such judgments must be withheld until more information is available.
'The international community is merely preparing to wash its hands of Cambodia,' he said. 'They are more interested in stability rather than democracy'.
Certainly the killings and violence that surrounded the campaign over the past two months remain largely unresolved.
The United Nations is investigating some 400 allegations of violence and intimidation. Twenty-eight murders are now under active investigation for political links - whittled down from 40.
Some of the killings were brutal in their execution.
One involved Thong Sophal a Funcinpec party organiser in southeastern Kandal province. He was found with his head smashed, eyes and fingers missing and all the flesh from his legs and feet stripped clean from the upper thigh. Local officials described the death as 'suicide'.
The more hard-boiled Phnom Penh diplomats say there was little hope of the elections being free of violence given Cambodia's bloody past of Khmer Rouge genocide and civil war. They stress it has to be seen as a matter of degree.
Compared to the widespread bloodshed of the 1993 polls - conducted by the UN in a US$2 billion effort to restore democracy to Cambodia - they say this year's ballots have been relatively safe.
As Mr Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh jointly occupy the moral high-ground, they do so after campaign speeches that have done little to boost their international reputations.
Both figures played the race card, stirring up old hatreds of the Vietnamese with racial slurs and warnings that Mr Hun Sen would allow the country to be dominated once again by the evil yuon from across the border.
Prince Ranariddh, who heads the Funcinpec coalition that Mr Rainsy claims was even more corrupt than the CPP when in power, constantly played up his links to the monarchy - a sure vote-winner with the peasants.
The prince is the illegitimate son of King Sihanouk, who has been at pains to stress his neutrality and told Cambodians to vote only according to their 'consciences'.
Today, Mr Hun Sen travels to Siem Reap for private talks with the king. The king is said to be keen to quietly ease his son from politics and has no objections to Mr Hun Sen continuing his rule.
If Mr Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh effectively withdraw themselves from contention, the stability versus democracy question could fall into the hands of the king and his prime minister.
Once again, Mr Hun Sen, would have outwitted his rivals. And this time with the endorsement of his most strident critics in the international community.