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Cambodians defy violence to vote

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) -- Incidents of violence have marred Cambodia's landmark local elections, but voters continued to turn out in high numbers at the polls.

A candidate from the opposition Sam Rainsy party candidate was found dead Saturday night in his home near the capital. Police ruled the hanging a suicide, saying the man had a history of depression, but party officials said they suspected foul play.

An election observer was found dead Saturday in Svay Rieng province, authorities said Sunday. He had been bound, stabbed multiple times and shot in the eye. The man's boss said he suspected his employee was tortured.

Despite the violence, voters cast ballots in record numbers Sunday, according to official estimates and eyewitness reports.

The major issues, which have been discusses in several public forums, are clean water, lower electricity and water prices, and improvements in roads, schools, and health care. Asia
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The Sam Rainsy Party, headed by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and the Funcinpec Party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh are in the running against the Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

These elections mark the first time village residents can choose the leaders of their communes, or clusters of villages. Until now, those leaders had been appointed by the CPP.

There are roughly 1,600 communes in Cambodia.

Candidates killed

The government has said it would bolster security and post policemen at polling booths to allay fears of widespread violence.

Already, some 20 candidates and activists of Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party have been killed. The CPP has denied accusations that it is behind the killings.

Tens of thousands of Cambodian and international observers, including many from the European Union, have expressed concern that the intimidation and violence will undermine the elections.

Still, the voter response was significant. People arriving on foot and motorcycles crowded polling stations even before they opened at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT Saturday), Associated Press news agency reported.

The first results were expected Monday. Final official results will be announced February 19-22.

"I woke up early to get in line first. I voted for a leader who understands the difficulties of our communes," said Chheang Sok Chana, 44, the first person to vote in Takhmau commune, 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Phnom Penh.

Strange directive

On Saturday, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party blasted a last minute directive by the government's National Election Committee banning voters from using their own pens to mark ballots. No explanation was given for the order.

"This last minute, arbitrary and secretive instruction given by some NEC officials ... is, at best, a sign of bad logistical preparation and, at worst, another attempt by some NEC officials to rig the election by giving officials the ability to invalidate ballots at their will," Sam Rainsy secretary-general Eng Chhay Eang said on the party's website.

Funcinpec, the other major party contesting, is the CPP's junior coalition partner in the national government but is competing separately in these local polls.

The CPP is fielding candidates in all 1,621 communes, while Funcinpec is entered in 1,605 and the Sam Rainsy Party in 1,501 communes.

The commune councils will have limited powers, mainly concerning municipal duties. They still will have to report to the Interior Ministry, as the current commune chiefs do.

Hun Sen and his CPP colleagues have been in power in one form or another since 1979, when the brutal Khmer Rouge regime was ousted by Vietnamese forces.

The CPP became part of an elected government after the 1993 national elections, and consolidated its hold on power after elections in 1998.


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