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Observers lower bar for Cambodia poll

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Conceding that free and fair elections are impossible after a campaign laden with fear and violence, Cambodian watchdog groups today fell in line behind foreign observers who said they would judge the polls by a lower standard.

Cambodian election officials, meanwhile, said they would bar two groups with close links to strongman Hun Sen from deploying an estimated 40,000 observers at polling stations. Many feared the observers would influence the result of the vote.Campaigning for the parliamentary elections ended Friday, and Saturday was a cooling off period before the 5.4 million registered voters cast ballots Sunday for the first time since the United Nations organized polls in 1993 under the protection of 20,000 peacekeepers.

This time, Cambodia is organizing the polls and the United Nations has been invited only to coordinate 678 foreign observers from 40 countries and regional groupings. They will, however, be unable to monitor all 11,600 polling stations.

The vote had been called by Hun Sen, who is seeking to restore international legitimacy and aid after deposing his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a bloody coup last year that shattered the coalition established after the U.N.-sponsored balloting.

Ranariddh and former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy are the main challengers. They believe Hun Sen will rig the vote or the counting in favor of his Cambodian People's Party. Many Cambodians fear Hun Sen will call out the army if he falls short in the vote.