UPDATED at 10:30 A.M. EST on 2017-05-22
Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha returned to Cambodia on Tuesday after a 17-day trip to the United States, saying he had drummed up U.S. interest in key local elections next month and reached out to Cambodian-Americans across the country.
Kem Sokha and his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) face a contest with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for 1,646 commune council seats on the June 4 ballot that many see as a bellwether for general elections in 2018.
“The international community, especially the new government of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Congress and NGO people listened to my presentation on the political situation in Cambodia and the election process," he told reporters upon arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport.
"They paid attention to the upcoming elections. They wanted to know more about this. In particular, they wanted to know about the CNRP’s point of view should it win the election to lead the country in the future,” added Kem Sokha.
He declined to give substantive comments on the trip, his first trip to the United States since taking over the reins of the CNRP in February after what effectively was the forced resignation of former leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile in France since late 2015 and has had numerous defamation lawsuits filed against him, with many still pending trial.
Kem Sokha said he had given presentations on the upcoming elections to Cambodian communities in 13 U.S. states, as well as to U.S. lawmakers and officials of the Trump administration.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 communal elections, held before the CNRP was formed.
Domestic monitors, however, detected scores of cases of irregularities during the election campaign, including intimidation, vote-buying, and the destruction of parties’ leaflets and logos.
The opposition party went on to win nearly half the vote in a general election in 2013.
This time around the CNRP is one of 12 political parties competing for the commune posts. Some analysts believe that the CNRP could pose a challenge to the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years.
Hun Sen and other top government officials, however, have issue a stream of threats and warnings that voting against the ruling party will lead to violence and war.
Official campaigning begins on May 20 and runs for 14 days.
The CNRP will hold a convention on Wednesday to elect a party vice president, a title Kem Sokha held until February, to comply with a ruling by the country's interior ministry that rejected the party's previous method of selecting a deputy leader.
Reported by Samnang Rann and Zakariya Tin for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
Correction: A previous version of the article erroneously stated that political parties are permitted to campaign for 12 days ahead of the June 4 ballot.