By Sopheng Cheang
Published 1:30 pm PDT, Saturday, July 7, 2018
Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Campaigning officially began Saturday for Cambodia’s July 29 general election, with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party virtually assured victory because the only credible opposition party was dissolved last year.
Hun Sen, who has led the country for more than three decades, began his Cambodian People’s Party campaign at a rally in Phnom Penh. His speech said if his government is returned to office, it will deliver continued economic development in one of the poorest nations in Asia.
The main opposition force, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by court order in what was generally considered a political maneuver by the ruling party. The opposition group’s members are urging a boycott of the election.
Twenty parties are contesting the polls but most are small and underfunded and others seen as being sponsored by the ruling party in an effort to give the impression of a free and fair election.
The EU and US are promising “concrete steps” against Cambodia after the main opposition party was banned ahead of the country’s elections. An EU spokesperson says the election could not be legitimate without the opposition. Officials say respect for human rights is a prerequisite for Cambodia’s access to EU trade preferences under its “Everything but Arms” scheme. The fact that the threat of action came from the White House gave it greater weight than previous statements from the State Department. Hun Sen has been in a deepening war of words with the US embassy and State Department over a crackdown on his critics. Cambodia faces U.S., EU action after banning opposition ahead of elections https://t.co/PrtCUyCUJ3 pic.twitter.com/O2V7mu3spG— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) 17 novembre 2017 Trade scheme EU officials have warned of consequences to vital trade. A scheme giving free access has helped Cambodia build a garment industry on low-cost labour. Similar trade preferences exist with the US. Between them, EU and US markets take around 60% of Cambodia’s of Cambodia’s exports. What happened to the opposition? The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court on Thursday at the request of the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The ban follows the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, for treason. He is accused of plotting to take power with American help. In a televised address on Thursday, Hun Sen told Cambodians the election would go ahead “as normal” and appealed to politicians from the CNRP who had not been banned to join his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). BREAKING: Cambodia’s Supreme Court orders dissolution of country’s main opposition party. https://t.co/yQNnUh9sZy— The Associated Press (@AP) 16 novembre 2017 Why is China important? Beijing is by far the biggest single donor to Cambodia and its biggest investor. It voiced support for the government after the arrest of Kem Sokha. What has been the response on the streets? There have been no protests over the ruling and many people in the capital, Phnom Penh, say they are afraid to speak out. There were no party members at CNRP headquarters. “They are worried for their safety,” said a security guard. Is there much appetite for sanctions? There has not been much so far from Western countries. The opposition has been wary of calling for steps to restrict garment exports because of the hundreds of thousands of workers who depend on the industry. However, CNRP leader now say they support some sanctions. What about human rights? The US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch says the court ruling should lead Cambodia’s donors and trade partners to impose targeted sanctions. These include asset freezes and travel bans on Hun Sen’s inner circle. Democracy died in Cambodia today https://t.co/thkApKRciA pic.twitter.com/2A0ZBegZbb— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) 16 novembre 2017 What do Hun Sen’s critics say? That the CNRP dissolution is an attempt to steal the election and the death knell for democracy. Hun Sen’s more-than three decade rule faces a major challenge at next year’s general election. Western donors have spent billions of dollars since 1993 trying to build a multiparty system following decades of war. What they are saying “On current course, next year’s election will not be legiitmate, free or fair,” – the White House promises to take concrete steps. “Sanctions are the best leverage for negotiation for free, fair and inclusive elections,” – Kem Sokha’s deputy Mo Sochua.
The election is Cambodia’s sixth since 1993, when the United Nations helped stage the country’s first free polls after the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge and civil war.
Hun Sen’s party said 60,000 people turned out for its rally.
In his speech, Hun Sen said that if his party wins, the country’s infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, bridges and schools, will be expanded, the price of electricity reduced and clean water for daily use will become more widely available in rural areas.
“Voting for CPP means voting for the continued improvement and enhancement of people’s livelihood. Victory for CPP means victory for people,” he said.
Hun Sen, 67, has said he intends to serve at least two more five-year terms. His authoritarian rule has given him a stranglehold over the state bureaucracy that makes any challenge to his authority difficult.
While he can justifiably boast of having restored peace and stability after decades of war and unrest and promoting economic growth, his critics point out that corruption and injustice have also grown, especially reflected in widespread land-grabbing.
Sam Rainsy, one of the co-founders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, is in self-imposed exile to avoid serving a prison term on a defamation conviction that is widely seen as politically inspired. He faces a host of other charges as well.
Sopheng Cheang is an Associated Press writer.
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