Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Tuesday that his party will get an indirect boost in July elections even if he is not allowed to return to contest in the polls.
The president of the National Rescue Party (NRP) united opposition coalition told RFA's Khmer Service that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government would be in shambles if it was returned to power without implementing election reforms or allowing him to contest in the polls.
“Participating in the election would be ideal, but if I can't participate, it would be good too, in a way,” Sam Rainsy said.
“Without my presence, the election will be seen as worthless and no one will recognize it. Cambodia will be seen as having an illegitimate government.”
Sam Rainsy said he would nevertheless continue to exhaust avenues to push for him to return to Cambodia, where he faces up to 11 years in prison after his conviction on charges he says were part of a campaign of political persecution against him led by Hun Sen.
But the 63-year-old, who currently lives in Paris, said that if he cannot return to participate in the election, the NRP—formed from his erstwhile Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and another leading group, the Human Rights Party (HRP)—would indirectly benefit from his absence because it would highlight the polls as being neither free nor fair.
Sam Rainsy said he believes that the international community would shun the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) leadership if Hun Sen were to win an election criticized as being a sham and could move to end financial assistance to the country.
He said Cambodians would also view the government as unlawful if there were no free and fair elections, which could undermine the CPP’s rule.
“This is a win-win situation. If the CPP wins the election, it would be just as if they had lost, because no one will recognize the result,” he said.
But the opposition leader vowed to continue his fight to take part in the polls.
He is traveling to England on Wednesday where he will meet with government officials, lawmakers, and other activists from around the world to gain their support for his bid to return to Cambodia.
“I will raise support to ensure a free and fair election in Cambodia,” adding that he would push for reform of the country’s National Election Committee (NEC), which critics say lacks independence from the ruling party.
“The committee must be independent, and I must be allowed to participate in the election campaign in July.”
The NEC has removed Sam Rainsy as a voter and disallowed him from standing as a candidate in the elections in a ruling in November.
The committee reaffirmed its position in January, saying that his convictions for crimes that included destroying border markers near Vietnam in 2009 make him ineligible to vote or to run for office.
Sam Rainsy’s comments came as Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong met with outgoing Australian Ambassador Penny Richards in Phnom Penh, stressing that the elections will be free and fair, regardless of the opposition leader’s participation.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung said Hor Namhong told the ambassador that the election would be “conducted smoothly.”
“[Sam Rainsy’s] party will participate in the election as planned, even without him here,” he said.
“The deputy prime minister said there is no way that the election will not be free and fair.”
The United States in January criticized the NEC’s decision to disqualify Sam Rainsy based on his criminal convictions, saying it called into question the vote’s legitimacy.
Free and fair elections “require a level playing field and unfettered participation of opposition parties,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time. “So the exclusion of a leading opposition leader calls into question the legitimacy of the whole democratic process in Cambodia.”
Sam Rainsy has said that the opposition's chances in the coming elections are good, basing his forecast on local elections last June in which he said the SRP and the HRP 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 said.
Hun Sen is the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia, having ruled Cambodia since 1985. In 2009 said he would continue to stand as a candidate until 2023.
Reported by Samean Yun and Sok Serey for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.