Cambodia yesterday officially started campaigning for next month’s general election, expected to be won by strongman Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is seeking to extend his 28-year grip on the country.
Thousands of supporters from several political parties took to Phnom Penh’s streets in colorful rival rallies, as cars and motorcycles adorned with political banners roared through the capital.
The rallies, held one month ahead of the July 28 polls, mark the official start of election season in the kingdom.
While all political parties are free to canvass voters and hold public rallies, observers say there is little chance of unseating the incumbent Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which won the last two polls by a landslide despite allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
Hun Sen and other CPP leaders marked the start of campaigning by receiving a blessing from the country’s top Buddhist monks in front of tens of thousands of supporters.
“Making a right decision will bring more success, but a wrong decision will be a setback and a huge danger for the nation,” CPP honorary president Heng Samrin told the rally.
The CPP would prevent the return of a genocidal regime, he added.
Party leaders have warned the country risks a return to civil war if the opposition wins, citing a pledge by the Cambodia National Rescue Party to prosecute members of the government for their alleged roles in the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in the late 1970s.
“Voting for the CPP is like voting for yourself,” Heng Samrin urged supporters, many wearing T-shirts and caps with the party logo.
Hun Sen has run Cambodia for 28 years, making him Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader beside the sultan of Brunei.
His government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and muzzling activists.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, his main challenger, is barred from running in the polls due to a string of convictions that the opposition says are politically motivated.
Rainsy, who lives in exile in France to avoid prison, faces 11 years in jail if he returns, after he was convicted in absentia on charges that included publishing a “false map” of the border with Vietnam.
There are eight parties competing for 123 parliamentary seats in the July 28 poll.
About 9.6 million people are registered to vote under the eyes of more than 7,700 domestic and international observers.