A royal pardon allowing exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return home has taken some of the heat off Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen but the respite may be short-lived as the international community narrows its focus on upcoming general elections that many expect to be tainted with irregularities.
The wily Hun Sen advised King Norodom Sihamoni last Friday to pardon Sam Rainsy in an apparent attempt to placate international critics who have accused the premier of wanting to exclude the opposition politician from the July 28 vote.
But while Sam Rainsy's 11-year jail sentence for politicized offenses has been scrapped—allowing him to return to his country a free man—the 64-year-old charismatic leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will still not be able to contest in the elections.
Rights groups are concerned that Hun Sen's administration and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) will continue to use the courts and other tools to intimidate Sam Rainsy and other opponents in the elections.
There is already a slew of cases brought against CNRP's deputy chief Kem Sokha, including a criminal complaint for defamation.
"No one should be fooled that the return of Sam Rainsy means that the Cambodian elections will be free and fair," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
There are "major problems" in the electoral system that could deny Cambodians a credible vote in two weeks' time, he said.
Robertson cited issues over voter registration lists, the lack of independence of the National Election Committee which manages the country's elections, the use of civil servants and army personnel to campaign for the CPP, government control of mass media to slant the news, and intimidation against opposition figures and civil society monitors.
Although Sam Rainsy has been disqualified to run for a parliamentary seat despite his pardon, the opposition will be hugely motivated by his return, Robertson said.
"And now we’re worried about what the CPP may try to do in the final days of the campaign to repress that exuberance and activism," he said. "So the risks of violence are real."
The CPP, whose central committee comprises all of Cambodia's top military commanders, has openly said that if the party loses the election, there will be civil war, suggesting possible CPP-instigated violence against the opposition and its supporters.
Some groups are not even certain Sam Rainsy—who says he'll fly back to Cambodia on July 19 from his temporary base in France—will be allowed to campaign freely for his party on his return home, said T. Kumar, the Washington-based international advocacy director at Amnesty International.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen should guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of movement for Sam Rainsy when he is there," Kumar said. "There is also the question of the plight of Sam Rainsy after the election and whether he will be harassed."
Ahead of his return, Sam Rainsy has himself stressed the need for "free and fair" elections, saying it is an essential element of any democracy worthy of the name.
"The mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for Cambodia, as promised in the Paris Peace Agreements, and does not advance NEC [National Election Committee] reform," he said.
Sam Rainsy was referring to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements signed by the United States and 17 other nations that laid out the process for ending decades of conflict in Cambodia and building a democratic society anchored in human rights and the rule of law.
The upcoming fifth elections since the Paris Accords are likely to be the least fair in the 20 years since the United Nations organized the historic 1993 poll, according to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).
The number of National Assembly (parliament) seats won by the CPP has consistently risen with each election although voter turnout and voter registration numbers have been falling.
An independent audit of 4,900 voters conducted this year found that 10.4 percent of registered voters simply did not exist, and that at least nine percent of past voters were unfairly removed from voting lists, according to a study by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec).
The NEC said that 9.6 million people have registered to vote for a 123-seat parliament, more than half of them between the ages of 18 and 35.
NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha gave an assurance that the elections would be in line with "democratic principles," referring to a statement issued by King Norodom Sihamoni assuring the public that they would not be intimidated by either individuals or political parties ahead of the polls.
“The King’s royal message assures the voters to vote without fear. This is a meaningful message,” he said in a recent statement.
Some groups believe that Hun Sen, the longest-serving leader of any Southeast Asian country, could gain an advantage in the elections for his decision paving the way for a royal pardon for his arch-rival.
"I see this as a win-win deal," said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, which is to deploy more than 800 observers to about 400 polling stations across the country on voting day to gauge the quality of the elections.
Hun Sen, 60, will benefit because Sam Rainsy's return "helps ease political tensions" and is seen as art of a "political compromise and reconciliation"—factors that may boost the vote's "legitimacy," Preap Kol said.
Sam Rainsy, on the other hand, will be able to enhance his party's chances in the elections by particularly attracting the young and "undecided voters," Preap Kol said.
"The fact that Sam Rainsy can return to the Cambodian political era gives a lot of hopes and aspirations to the voters, especially the 'young' who comprise 36.5 percent of the registered voters," he said.
With about two weeks before the polls, the U.S. State Department reminded the Hun Sen's government of the need to adopt recommendations by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, aimed at free and fair elections.
Subedi had said that most of the proposals aimed at reforming Cambodia's electoral process based on shortcomings identified in previous elections "remain unimplemented" by the authorities.
Last week, a number of U.S. lawmakers said that aid to Cambodia should be cut unless the polls were free and fair.
The European Union, which in 2008 sent hundreds of observers to monitor the elections, has declined to participate in this year’s polls.
"A transparent and credible election is a major opportunity to consolidate democracy and secure Cambodia's future development," the E.U. said in a recent statement.