PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- With a threat by Khmer Rouge guerrillas to disrupt the election largely unrealized, Cambodians thronged to the polls yesterday amid initial signs of an unexpectedly heavy and enthusiastic turnout.
"This is how much they want democracy," said Elaine Douglas-Noel, a United Nations elections monitor from Jamaica, who tried to calm throngs who gathered to vote in Kompong Cham, northeast of Phnom Penh.
"It doesn't ease up. They keep pushing the door. We had to post a police officer to hold them back."
Only three minor incidents were reported, confounding earlier fears that intimidation and violence might keep the voters away.
The large turnout was additionally surprising because the annual monsoon rains drenched the country yesterday morning, but the downpour was seen as a good omen in this rice-growing nation and reinforced an atmosphere of holiday festivity.
"Seeing the long lines and the enthusiasm of the population confirms that confidence in the Cambodian people was well placed," said Eric Falt, a U.N. spokesman.
Mr. Falt said that between 1.5 million and 2 million of Cambodia's 4.6 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday, the first of six days of voting for a new Parliament. Because of fears of violence, U.N. officials had said earlier that they would be happy with an eventual turnout of just over 50 percent.
The election is the culmination of a $2.6 billion U.N. effort to end decades of civil war here and return the country to democratic rule. A total of 20 political parties are taking part in the election for a new 120-member Parliament, which will write a new constitution and choose a new government.
Of the 20 parties, the ruling Cambodian People's Party -- a Communist-style party -- and a pro-West royalist group known by its French acronym, FUNCINPEC, are expected to take the most votes.
The Khmer Rouge, blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians during its brutal reign in the 1970s, had signed the October 1991 peace agreement which led to these elections. But the group balked at surrendering its arms last June and has vowed to disrupt the voting.
At least a dozen U.N. peacekeepers were killed in Khmer Rouge attacks in the past several weeks. But the Khmer Rouge's efforts to disrupt the vote were impotent in the face of the overwhelming turnout.
Perhaps an early indicator of the trend in the voting came when Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of FUNCINPEC, was cheered wildly by hundreds of voters waiting in the rain to cast ballots at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium. At the same time, Chea Sim, head of the Cambodia People's Party, entered the polling station without the sound of any applause.
Prince Ranariddh, who returned from exile to lead his party in the election, said that all the parties should respect the will of the people.
In a possible explanation for the Khmer Rouge's failure to disrupt the polls, Prince Ranariddh said its behavior would be taken into consideration when efforts were made to form a government after the election is over.
"The Khmer Rouge will take the main responsibility if they disrupt the elections," he said.
Prince Ranariddh said that if his party wins, he will turn over "full state powers" to his father, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's nominal head of state, who was ousted in 1970. He said Prince Sihanouk would be given the powers "to really run the country and re-establish real peace in Cambodia."
Prince Sihanouk has said that he hopes to form a government of national reconciliation that would include members of all parties, including the Khmer Rouge -- even though the Khmer Rouge boycotted the election. The Khmer Rouge issued statements last week indicating that it supported such an approach.
"My father will be able to talk to the Khmer Rouge and make them reasonable," Prince Ranariddh said.
The Phnom Penh administration headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen countered that his government, if elected, would fight the Khmer Rouge to the finish.