Thousands rally ahead of local polls in Cambodia

Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, arrives at a campaign rally in Phnom Penh for Sunday’s closely contested local elections. (Reuters Photo)

PHNOM PENH: Hundreds of thousands of supporters of both Cambodia’s ruling party and the opposition held rallies in Phnom Penh on Friday ahead of local elections on Sunday seen as a test of support for veteran strongman Hun Sen ahead of the 2018 general election.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, has warned of possible violence if his ruling party does not keep control of the country.

Rivals, along with human rights groups, accuse Hun Sen of using court cases, arrests, intimidation and other measures to keep a more than three-decade grip on power.

In a sign of how critical the local poll has become, Hun Sen on Friday broke with his longstanding tradition of avoiding direct campaigning to join an estimated 200,000 supporters of his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

“The opposition has done nothing besides telling foreign donors to cut aid, investors not to invest and the EU not to import Cambodia garments,” Hun Sen said in an hour-long speech to the crowd gathered in the tropical heat.

“This is the choice between peace and security for development, and chaotic destruction,” he said.

During the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, some 1.8 million people died from starvation, torture, exhaustion or disease in labor camps or were bludgeoned to death during mass executions

Since Hun Sen came to power, Cambodia has emerged from decades of conflict to clock annual growth rates above 7%, a record he highlighted.

But the opposition performed unexpectedly well in the 2013 general election after uniting behind a single party.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is expected to again improve its showing in Sunday’s communal elections, given that divided opposition parties secured only 3% of communes in the last such contest.

At a CNRP rally on Friday, party member Yim Sovann told supporters not to be afraid and promised a landslide win in 2018.

“We all need to be united as one and win,” he said, promising that the opposition would do “three times as much” for Cambodia as Hun Sen’s party, which it accuses of corruption.

CNRP leader Kem Sokha told the crowd that after winning national elections next year, the CNRP would make Cambodia a better country with no deforestation, no corruption and an improving living standard.

Kem Sokha then appealed to Cambodians to vote for “positive change, a change from poor to rich, from injustice to justice.”

Cambodian political analyst Cham Bunthet said that if the CNRP won over 31% of the votes on Sunday, it would be a blow to the ruling party, but he said the opposition’s chances could be weakened by low voter turnout.

Sebastian Strangio, the author of the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the election would not affect the ruling party’s control of the national government.

Twelve parties are campaigning for seats in the election, in which communes, or clusters of villages, elect a council of five to 11 members each every five years.

Cambodia National Election spokesman Hang Puthea said 7.8 million Cambodians had registered to vote on Sunday, down from 9.2 million in 2012.

In the last commune elections in 2012, the CPP won 1,592 of 1,633 commune chief positions up for grabs, while the now-defunct opposition Sam Rainsy Party won 22, the Human Rights Party 18, and the royalist Funcinpec party one.

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