Leading Article: The UN's Cambodia operation at risk

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EVENTS in Cambodia show that it may be possible to organise free and fair elections in countries unused to democracy, in this case at huge expense, but there can be no guarantee that the results will be accepted. About the success of the election process in Cambodia there can be no doubt. The 90 per cent turn-out was both a tribute to the United Nations supervision of the electoral process and a rebuff to the Khmer Rouge, whose earlier campaign of intimidation and threats of violence failed to keep people away from the polling booths.

In the event, and no doubt thanks largely to the UN's determination to see the elections through, the Khmer Rouge's leadership appeared to decide that its interests would be better served by calling off its intimidation campaign and encouraging a high rural turn-out.

With 80 per cent of votes counted, it appears victory will go to Funcinpec, the opposition party loyal to Prince Norodom Sihanouk (the French-derived acronym stands for National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia). The reaction of the governing party, the formerly Communist Cambodian People's Party (CPP), has been to demand that voting be held again in several provinces to correct alleged irregularities - a pretty rich claim from a party experienced in political assassination and intimidation. Needless to say, the alleged malpractices took place in areas in which it was losing.

How far the CPP will push its insistence remains far from clear. There is general agreement among UN personnel that the elections were fair. Ominously, both the government, which has about 100,000 men under arms, and the Khmer Rouge seem to be mobilising their forces. Funcinpec, now run by Prince Sihanouk's son, lives up to its name and has no military strength. But the Khmer Rouge, with which it has had a working alliance since 1982, might decide to come to its aid if the CPP, fearing public revenge against its unloved cadres across the country, refuses to step down. In that event the country could revert to civil war, as happened in Angola when Jonas Savimbi, the Unita leader, failed to accept defeat at the hands of the governing MPLA party last October. After a UN operation in Cambodia involving 22,000 personnel and costing pounds 1.3bn, second only in dimensions to Dag Hammarskjoeld's Congo mission in 1960, that would be a grave setback to the UN's authority.

With hindsight, the UN erred in staking everything on the elections without giving due consideration to their likely aftermath. There was always a chance this would include the formation of a coalition government as well as the drafting of a constitution by the newly elected constituent assembly and the election of a legislative assembly.

That sovereign manoeuvrer Prince Sihanouk now has invited leaders of the two main parties to a meeting to tackle the emerging crisis. The choice facing them seems simple: either the CPP acknowledges Funcinpec's victory and hands over the reins of power, or the two parties form a coalition. If neither course can be agreed, civil war seems certain. A coalition would create a dilemma for the Khmer Rouge, which might hesitate to attack an enemy in alliance with the nationally respected Sihanouk.

If the worst does happen, the lesson will be simple. Big powers that feel guilty about their treatment of smaller ones cannot count on using the UN as a kind of moral sticking plaster. Vietnam invaded Cambodia with Soviet backing, to end the Khmer Rouge's genocidal regime. China supported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Elections or no elections, the old hatreds and xenophobia linger. The message to mankind if Cambodia reverts to full-scale civil war will be bleak indeed.