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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Polling day a peaceful affair for voters

Polling day a peaceful affair for voters



An elderly voter in Kampong Cham searches for the party of his choice.

A 78-year-old woman leaving a Phnom Penh-area polling station remarked:

"Inside it was very dark... At first I had the ballot upside-down."

AN EERIE quiet prevailed in Phnom Penh on the afternoon of July 26, the much-anticipated

day that citizens deposited their choices for the nation's leadership into padlocked

aluminum boxes. Streets were almost deserted, shops were dark and shuttered, and

normally bustling markets stood empty.

Most residents of the capital flocked to polling stations early in the morning, nearly

overwhelming election workers in larger stations who barely fought back the floods

of impatient democracy.

After voting people invariably retreated to their homes and waited to see if there

would be any immediate reaction to their enthusiasm. Their guts told them election

day could be a dangerous day. Would there be violence?

The answer was no. Except for an isolated Khmer Rouge attack in the far north of

the country, peace prevailed on polling day.

By the evening jitters began to subside and the quiet was replaced by the flavor

of an average Sunday in Phnom Penh - parks filled with children playing football,

families strolled by the riverside and the streets crowded with their normal flow

of traffic as people congregated to swap election day experiences.

Polling day in the capital - unlike ballot counting in the following days - was considered

adequate by voters, observers and politicians of all stripes.

Scattered reports from political party observers, however, hinted that voting in

rural areas may not have been totally trouble-free.

"Everything seems OK in Phnom Penh, but there have been reports of problems

in some provinces," Funcinpec candidate Prak Chantha said before entering a

polling station.

Funcinpec Secretary-General Tol Lah said his observers had reported that 58 ballot

boxes in Bavel district were sealed before observers had arrived at the polling station.

The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) was the most critical of the balloting process as it noted

every irregularity it could find - including serious alleged infractions such as

missing ballots in Takeo to seemingly harmless reports of old ladies in Prey Veng

submitting crumpled ballots.

Asked while patrolling Phnom Penh if it was the opposition's job to police polling

stations, SRP candidate Tioulong Saumura responded: "Not police. This is part

of my job not as an opposition candidate, but as an ordinary citizen I am defending

my right to vote freely."

Another SRP official later commented dryly: "Unfortunately the opposition has

been saddled with the job that should be taken care of by the government."

Four polling stations visited by the Post with Saumura at Kampuchea Bot Primary School

in Chamkarmon district were being closely watched by three heavily armed policemen

about 10 meters from the school's front gate.

"There are police openly displaying weapons less than 200 meters from the station,"

a foreign election observer noted. "I'd say this is a violation."

Polling station security chief Chhang Sokuntheary explained that the police had been

called in to deal with traffic. "Because we had a traffic jam before so the

police intervention unit came to help us. After they solve the problem they will

leave," he said. "I don't have a police uniform so I can't tell the people

what to do."

Voters at the school had mixed reactions to the AK-47-toting police. "I am not

scared of the presence of police at the polling station because they are here to

provide security," a 27-year-old said. "It will not change my mind on whom

I will vote for."

Another said he was seized by fear when the police arrived because he thought their

presence meant imminent violence.

"I felt that there might be a grenade attack and the police were here to protect

us," he said.

At one polling station in Bavet district of Svay Rieng, unruly voters were more of

a concern than police or soldiers - election staff reported that the pushing and

shoving got so bad that they closed the station for an hour until the electorate

settled down.

Meanwhile, during polling in Kampong Cham town, station 0367 had a star-studded voting


Before the arrival of the two main opposition leaders, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and

Sam Rainsy, Kampong Cham Governor Hun Neng - Hun Sen's elder brother - quietly cast

his vote into that box.

So did Funcinpec Interior co-Minister You Hockry, who admitted that despite his powerful

position, he himself had received death threats during the campaign.

"I'm a politician, it doesn't matter, but I have to take care," he said.

He also declared after voting that less than 10 seats for Funcinpec in the province

would be a loss to the royalist party.

More cautious was Sam Rainsy on his arrival. "I am not like Hun Sen and Ranariddh,"

he said. "These two leaders predict a landslide vote for each of them. I am

much more moderate and more cautious."

He said a good result would have been a three-way split - which he later achieved

in the provincial capital. But his party took a battering in the countryside.

"If the election is judged acceptable by the international community, especially

the...internationally recognized observers and Cambodian observers, then definitely

I will accept [the results]."

However, he took a swipe at the Joint International Observer Group, which had predicted

elections would be "broadly representative" of the will of the Cambodian

people. Rainsy said his standards would be "free and fair. I stick to my standards,

not lowering my standards as do some people."

As soon as Rainsy departed, Prince Ranariddh drove up to applause from the crowd.

"I think it's a great day for democracy," he said, noting the long queues

of people he had seen, dressed in their best, waiting to vote. "I think that

Funcinpec will win."

He said the race was a simple choice: "In Cambodia today, I think that we will

have only two parties or two sides, on one hand democracy, on the other totalitarian."

In Pailin, former Khmer Rouge deputy prime minister Ieng Sary voted and predicted

victory for Hun Sen and the CPP.

"I feel great, this is the first time in my life to participate in voting,"

Ieng Sary told Reuters.

"My assesment is that the CPP will be number one but it could not obtain a majority

so there will be a coalition government."

In Romeas Hek district of Svay Rieng province, National Police Chief Hok Lundy swooped

into the polling station at Kampong Trach Primary School by helicopter at 7:30am.

"If we compare this election to the 1993 election that was organized by UNTAC,

[the 1993 election] had some complex problems that did not reflect true justice,"

Hok Lundy said after voting.

"But now we can see that we have our own democracy and that the people have

the right to select the party of their choice freely."



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