Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Tuesday he is still confident of returning to Cambodia to participate in national elections in July, even though the government has disqualified him from standing or voting in the polls and has vowed to arrest and jail him if he returns.
He said that international pressure on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen over the vote's legitimacy if he cannot stand in elections could convince the authorities to allow him back to the country.
Sam Rainsy, who is head of the united opposition coalition National Rescue Party (NRP) and currently lives in Paris, faces up to 11 years in prison in Cambodia on charges he says were part of a campaign of political persecution against him.
Sam Rainsy said that the opposition could give Hun Sen's Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a run for its money following the recent merger between his erstwhile Sam Rainsy Party and another leading group, the Human Rights Party.
Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service from Finland, where he met with senior officials, Sam Rainsy said that international pressure on the Cambodian government is mounting for his return and expressed confidence that the political environment will change ahead of the July 28 elections.
"We have seven months to go, and experience has shown that the political environment changes all the time. All I know now is I will be in Cambodia for the election," he said.
The country’s National Election Committee (NEC), which critics say lacks independence from the ruling party, had removed Sam Rainsy as a voter and disallowed him from standing as a candidate in the elections in a ruling in November.
It reaffirmed its position last week, saying that his conviction for crimes that included destroying border markers near Vietnam in 2009 make him ineligible to vote or to run for office.
The United States criticized the decision on Friday, saying it calls into question the vote’s legitimacy.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington was disappointed by the NEC's disqualification of Sam Rainsy based on criminal convictions.
"We are disappointed in the Cambodian National Election Committee’s announcement recently, again reiterating that Sam Rainsy was removed from the official voter list for the July 2013 elections due to criminal convictions, which credible observers believe have been politically motivated,” she said.
Free and fair elections “require a level playing field and unfettered participation of opposition parties,” she said. “So the exclusion of a leading opposition leader calls into question the legitimacy of the whole democratic process in Cambodia.”
But as National Rescue Party President, Sam Rainsey declared this week that he would be able to return to Cambodia due to international pressure ahead of the National Election July 28.
"Actually, as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party representing the united democratic opposition, I am the only serious challenger to Mr. Hun Sen for premiership," Sam Rainsy said.
He said the opposition's chances in the coming elections are good, basing his forecast on local elections last June in which he said the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party collected a total of 31 percent of the popular vote in spite of what he described as a partisan election commission and serious manipulation of voter lists.
"Therefore, one can understand why incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to exclude me from the election process in spite of international condemnation.”
“He wants to preserve his position without a risky, real fight. But any national election without the participation of the leader of the opposition is just meaningless," he said.
"I will be back in Cambodia before the July elections, when Hun Sen realizes that any government stemming from an illegitimate election would be considered illegitimate with far-reaching consequences for Cambodia's stability and prosperity."
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told RFA however that Sam Rainsy's statement that he could return to Cambodia does not hold water, saying the international community cannot influence Cambodia as an "independent state."
He said that the government will enforce the court's verdicts against Sam Rainsy if he returns.
"Sam Rainsy told his followers that when [President Barack] Obama came to Cambodia [in November], he would be here, but he wasn't here," Khieu Kanharith said.
"He is now telling his supporters that he will be in Cambodia for the election. This is a lie."
Reported by Samean Yun of RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.