Tens of thousands of supporters thronged the streets of Cambodia’s capital Thursday to officially kick off campaigns for political parties contesting next month’s national elections, as the exiled leader of the country’s main opposition group said he would not return for the polls.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and at least five opposition parties, including exiled leader Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), held separate rallies in Phnom Penh in preparation of the July 28 vote.
The poll is the fifth national election since the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords ended decades of civil war in Cambodia, including the 1975-79 rule of the notorious Khmer Rouge, which killed millions of the country’s citizens.
In 2008—Cambodia’s last election—the CPP won 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, or parliament. This year, the country’s nearly 10 million registered voters can choose candidates from among eight political parties.
The CPP, which is widely expected to win the vote, launched its campaign on Thursday with a commemoration of the 62nd anniversary of the party, presided over by Hun Sen, Senate president Chea Sim, and National Assembly president Heng Samrin. Later, the rally marched through the streets with some 10,000 supporters in tow.
Heng Samrin, who is also the honorary president of the CPP, said that a vote for his party would mean stability for Cambodia with the 60-year-old Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985. Hun Sen has said he wants to lead the country until he is 74.
“If the CPP wins, we promise that Hun Sen will continue as prime minister,” Heng Samrin said.
“He will guarantee peace, and political and social stability, as well as more development—just like other modern nations.”
CPP member and Minister of Social Affairs Ith Samheng said his party enjoyed an overwhelming turnout by supporters and predicted it would win the election.
“Supporters gathered happily today,” he said. “They are showing their support for the ruling party.”
Around 20,000 supporters of the CNRP held a rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park before marching through the city and into neighboring Kandal province.
Acting president of the CNRP Kem Sokha told supporters that his party would move ahead with democratic reforms if elected, rejecting claims by Hun Sen that the country would be reduced to chaos with an opposition win.
“If the CNRP wins, I guarantee we will not start a revolution or stage a new war,” he said.
“We will only change the leadership. We will reform our country according to the democratic process.”
CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, is barred by the Cambodian authorities from contesting the elections due to convictions that he says were politically motivated and for which he faces a total of 11 years in prison.
On Thursday, he told RFA’s Khmer Service that he would be unable to return to the country before the elections, despite previously suggesting that an agreement would be reached between the CNRP and Hun Sen’s government allow him to take part in the polls.
Sam Rainsy said that it was more important to the future of the country that he remains free, instead of going to jail and “falling into Hun Sen’s trap.”
“I must evaluate the situation—I want to protect my security and freedom to struggle for my country,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that the election results would determine his fate.
“In just another month we will see a difference like black and white, when the voters become the owners of the country and have the right to define their own fates … The problem that [the government] has caused me will eventually be resolved.”
He said that his absence will not affect the results of the election and vowed to continue his party’s push for election reforms to reduce the potential for fraud during the vote.
But Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) director Ou Virak said that the opposition leader’s announcement that he will not return to Cambodia would hurt the CNRP and weaken its support base.
“If he returns ahead of the election, his support will increase,” he said.
“If authorities arrest him, he will become a Cambodian hero, which would force the government to talk with him.”
In April, Hun Sen warned that the country would plunge into civil war if the CNRP wins the election and follows through on pledges to prosecute members of his government who are former members of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Peaceful day one
The election campaigns were launched without any major incidents despite concerns by rights groups over possible violence, especially after accusing the CPP of using aggressive tactics against the opposition.
Earlier this month, 10 Cambodian NGOs said in a statement that local authorities and village chiefs have been threatening supporters of non-CPP parties and routinely preventing them from joining opposition rallies.
The group cited instances where opposition party logos were destroyed and CPP agents were found to be buying votes from local communities.
Hun Sen’s government has also been accused by the opposition of masterminding a political attack against its leaders.
Earlier this month, the CPP-dominated National Assembly pushed through a law making it a crime to deny Khmer Rouge atrocities after Kem Sokha allegedly said that a prison in Phnom Penh run by the regime had been faked by Vietnam—a charge the CNRP has denied.
Twenty-nine opposition party members could not attend the voting session as they were dismissed by the National Assembly’s CPP-run permanent committee for leaving their original parties—the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party—to form the CNRP coalition.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.