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7/25/03 - CAMBODIA'S ELECTION DAY - 2003-07-25

The secret ballot is indispensable to democracy. It enables citizens to vote in private for whichever party or candidate they prefer -- and nobody will know who they voted for. As millions of Cambodians go to the polls on July 27th to elect a new national assembly, they should be aware that the secret ballot is now enshrined in Cambodian law.

More than six-million Cambodians are registered to vote. Twenty-two political parties are vying for one-hundred twenty-three contested seats. The elections are an important milestone for Cambodia, still struggling to overcome the legacy of Khmer Rouge atrocities, civil war, repression, and corruption.

In 1993, ninety-percent of Cambodian voters defied Khmer Rouge terror to establish a multi-party democratic transitional government. In 1997, hopes for democracy in Cambodia were set back by the collapse of the coalition government. Hun Sen has been prime minister since then, and there have been significant improvements in human rights conditions. Nevertheless, the 1998 National Assembly elections and the 2002 Commune Council elections were marred by politically-motivated violence, intimidation, and lack of equitable media access for opposition parties.

The current Cambodian election campaign has seen a significant drop in political killings, although they do continue. And there have been reports of more subtle forms of intimidation carried out by local officials. Recently, the Ministry of Interior banned village chiefs from being party agents. That is a welcome, if belated, step.

In order for the voters to make informed choices, they need the widest possible access to information. But the government-run broadcast media have given the ruling Cambodian People’s Party the bulk of their news coverage.

One good sign is that Cambodian political parties have participated in candidate debates sponsored by the National Democratic Institute, a group supported with U.S. government funds that promotes democracy around the world. The debates gave voters a chance to ask the candidates where they stand on the pressing issues facing Cambodia. Election-monitoring groups are also distributing voter guides.

Cambodia's national election commission has a great responsibility to curb electoral abuses and ensure that the national assembly elections are free and fair. But citizens must do their part too -- by voting. The secret ballot gives them the opportunity to decide who will govern their country. This is their chance to make a better Cambodia.