UN celebrates rare good news from Cambodia: Observers are delighted but puzzled at the failure of the Khmer Rouge to disrupt elections

THE United Nations-supervised election in Cambodia has gone far better than anyone dared to hope. Yesterday the polls closed after six days of voting, during which some 90 per cent of the country's 4.7 million registered voters - including the estranged brother of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot - cast their ballots.

Even the head of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), Yasushi Akashi, was surprised at the lack of violence during the election, following the refusal of the Maoist Khmer Rouge and its bitterest enemy, the Phnom Penh government, to put down their arms. Despite scattered incidents, the Khmer Rouge failed to disrupt the voting as promised: everyone is now trying to fathom its motives.

The most obvious explanation is that the Khmer Rouge lacked the strength to carry out its threat. It would have been hard to guess this over the past few months, when the movement appeared to have no difficulty keeping pressure on Untac - forcing the peace-keepers, for example, to extend the voter registration period by a month. A senior Western diplomat argued, however, that the spate of violence over the past several months had been misleading.

According to his analysis, the Khmer Rouge is divided. Until the end of April the movement's more hardline faction had insisted that enough armed disruption would frighten Untac out of Cambodia. They would have been encouraged in this view by Mr Akashi's emollience, refusing to condemn the Khmer Rouge for all but its most blatant ceasefire violations and saying peace-keepers should avoid confrontation.

What this faction might not have bargained for was the UN's determination to press on with the election at almost any cost. Having stationed 22,000 personnel for more than a year in Cambodia, at a cost of dollars 2bn (pounds 1.3bn), the impact of a withdrawal on the organisation's credibility and future peace-keeping operations would have been unthinkable. When this became apparent, the diplomat said, the Khmer Rouge had to make a last-minute reassessment. Those who favoured a more subtle approach argued that the hardliners had failed, and widespread violence during the poll would drive more voters into the arms of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), Phnom Penh's political vehicle.

One Khmer Rouge source has been quoted as saying the new strategy was to encourage support for Funcinpec, the French acronym for the royalist party which backs the former monarch, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Since a high poll was thought to favour the royalists, anything which disrupted voting would be self-defeating. Some 1,000 Khmer Rouge cadres, including a handful of top officers, actually voted.

This tactic also seems to have misfired. The pragmatists were relying on Prince Sihanouk's frequently-stated support for a government of national reconciliation, with Khmer Rouge participation. This would give the movement a share of power without having made any compromise with the peace process. But the prince has had to recognise that whether the CPP or Funcinpec comes out ahead, the one thing voters clearly do not want is the return of the Khmer Rouge. In classic fashion he has reversed his position: this week he was quoted by foreign visitors as saying the success of the election had erased the movement from Cambodia's future.

That may be premature, but the rush to vote has certainly increased the prospect of a stable government which would be able to contain, if not defeat, the Khmer Rouge. As if to deepen its isolation, the movement contrived to kill soldiers from China, its erstwhile backer, in two of its few recent attacks on Untac forces.

The UN still has a long way to go in Cambodia. The election victors, whose names will be known early next week, will not form a new government, but an interim assembly which will have three months to draw up a new constitution. Even without the Khmer Rouge, there is plenty of potential for a bloody collapse of the peace process: Prince Sihanouk remains unpredictable and the Phnom Penh government's willingness to yield power is untested. But this weekend Mr Akashi is entitled to feel that a dangerous moment for Untac is safely past.

(Photograph omitted)

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