Cambodia's opposition leader Sam Rainsy warned Friday that if he is continued to be barred from contesting the upcoming national elections, he will not recognize any victory by Prime Minister Hun Sen's party in the polls.
This could set the stage for mass protests by his supporters and other Cambodians, Sam Rainsy told RFA's Khmer Service in an interview hours after he returned Friday to Phnom Penh from four years of self-imposed exile.
The National Election Committee, which conducts and manages elections in Cambodia, has ruled out Sam Rainsy's participation in the July 28 elections although he has received a royal pardon for offenses which he says are politically motivated.
The 64-year-old Sam Rainsy, who heads the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), believes the international community would also not endorse any victory by Hun Sen's dominant Cambodian People's Party (CPP) if the opposition leader's name is not on the ballot.
He said it would be unfair if he is barred from contesting the parliamentary elections as he is the head of the main opposition party and a potential prime ministerial candidate.
“If I can’t participate, after the elections all the Cambodian people will protest and the whole international community will condemn the result and regard this as a sham election," Sam Rainsy told RFA when asked about his options if he is not allowed to compete in the polls.
"Then we will demand a real election to allow Cambodians to decide their true destiny,” said Sam Rainsy, who was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters on his arrival Friday.
He vowed in a speech to his supporters that he would "rescue" the country from corruption and harsh rule if his party wins the elections and ousts the CPP, which has held power for 28 years and at present holds 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, the country's parliament.
Sam Rainsy, who had been living in France since 2009 to avoid a 11-year prison term for politicized offenses, was granted a royal pardon by King Norodom Sihamoni at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen a week ago.
However, he cannot contest the elections because the registration of candidates has long been closed and his name has been removed from the electoral register, the NEC said.
"In order to value this competition and for the election result to be recognized, there must be two competitors," Sam Rainsy said.
"Now without me, Sam Rainsy, who must run as the prime ministerial candidate for the CNRP, the current prime minister [Hun Sen] doesn’t have any rivals and will not be competing with anyone. So even if he announces a victory, it is not a victory,” he said.
Sam Rainsy has accused the NEC of being under the control of the CPP, which has won the last two polls by a landslide despite allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
Hun Sen has said he will try to stay in office for another decade, until he is 74. Rights groups say his continued rule will only worsen human rights violations and corruption and further suppress political freedoms.
Problems in electoral system
Rights groups say Cambodia's electoral system is riddled with major problems, including issues over voter registration lists, 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.
While Sam Rainsy's return has given a shot in the arm to the opposition, rights groups are concerned that Hun Sen's administration may move to thwart the opposition campaign.
"The deck is heavily stacked every day in Cambodia against anyone who dares to oppose Hun Sen," Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told RFA.
He said the CPP has openly said that if it loses the election, there will be civil war, suggesting possible CPP-instigated violence against the opposition and its supporters.
Sam Rainsy said he and CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha were united in their zeal to wrest victory following their decision to merge their parties.
The CNRP is a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha's Human Rights Party (HRP).
“We want the people to win and become the owners of their country,” Sam Rainsy said. “We are uniting the whole nation."
Kem Sokha said Hun Sen's party was trying to split the CNRP but their efforts would fail.
“We have the same goal, we have a slogan to be united to make changes. We are holding hands to end the people's current plight,” Kem Sokha said.
“This is a lesson [that we have already learned]. Nothing will split Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha," he said. The two parties tried to forge a union before the 2008 national election but failed after they openly criticized each other.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.