PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- There are 20 political parties of all descriptions battling it out in this week's general elections in Cambodia. But in many respects, the most significant -- and certainly the most terrifying -- force in the country is the party watching angrily from the sidelines.
The missing group is the Khmer Rouge, known to most Cambodians simply as the dreaded "angkar": The Organization.
The Khmer Rouge signed the October 1991 peace agreement, which gave the United Nations the authority to conduct "free and fair" elections for a new parliament. But for reasons that are still something of a mystery, it changed its mind last year and has vociferously denounced the balloting as an imperialist plot.
It would be easy to write off the Khmer Rouge's often paranoid ravings about the elections as the delusions of 1960s radicals who have spent too many years in the jungle. But the organization still commands a disciplined, battle-hardened army of 12,000 fighters with which the next government of Cambodia -- no matter who wins this week's vote -- will have to contend. So the question in Cambodia today is: What exactly does the Khmer Rouge want?
Judging by its own propaganda and interviews with analysts, the Khmer Rouge wants a piece of the political pie even though it is not taking part in the elections. By using force and intimidation, it hopes to discredit the elections in the eyes of the world.
As Cambodian leaders try to pick up the pieces, the Khmer Rouge wants to be included in a government of national reconciliation, according to this theory.
Many Cambodians are afraid that the Khmer Rouge is simply too powerful to be excluded from power. Without a deal, the political realists argue, a return to civil war is inevitable. But for many who endured its cruelty while it ruled the country, any role for the Khmer Rouge is too much.
Publicly, the Khmer Rouge insists its goals are modest.
"We don't ask for important portfolios [in the Cabinet] -- even a folding chair would be acceptable. I want to make clear that the DK [Khmer Rouge] does not want to come back to power," Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the group, has told an interviewer.
Much of the political debate in the election campaign has been shaped by ideas on how to deal with the Khmer Rouge problem.
For the Phnom Penh government headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the answer is simple: A fight to the finish.
But rivals such as the royalist faction headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh have won popularity in this war-weary country by promising to negotiate with the Khmer Rouge. Their line is basically: Let's give peace a chance. The elections could turn on the question of whether voters believe they can still trust the Khmer Rouge.
Many Western diplomats regard the Khmer Rouge complaints of bias against it in the pre-election period, although somewhat justified, as a smoke screen to conceal its larger concerns: that it never intended to place its army under the control of the United Nations, nor to disarm and open its areas of control to U.N. inspection. It would have gotten clobbered at the polls and would have no club to wield afterward.
Halfway through the six-day election period, U.N. officials reported an unexpectedly heavy and enthusiastic turnout at the polls despite fears of violence.
At a news conference last week, Mr. Hun Sen made clear that if he wins, the Phnom Penh authorities plan to fight the Khmer Rouge -- not in a civil war, but as the legitimate government in Cambodia combating an outlaw insurgency. The marginalizing of the Khmer Rouge is a real possibility.
But if there is no clear winner in the election, the parties may turn to Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the acknowledged father figure of Cambodian politics, to form a government of national reconciliation, which he has said he will do.