PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Campaigning for Cambodia’s general election officially began Saturday, an exercise that is more an affirmation of a nominally democratic process than a prelude to a genuine contest.
Eighteen parties are contesting this year’s polls, for which around 9.7 million people are eligible to vote to elect 125 members of National Assembly. The campaign period ends on July 21, and July 23 is election day.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 38 years, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party is virtually guaranteed a landslide victory, since the Candlelight Party, the sole other contender capable of mounting a credible challenge, was barred on a technicality from contesting the polls by the National Election Committee.
The situation mirrors what happened before the last general election in 2018, when the popular Cambodian National Rescue Party, which had performed strongly in local elections, was dissolved months before the polls by a controversial court ruling that alleged it had plotted the illegal overthrow of the government. The party’s disbanding enabled Hun Sen’s party to win all the seats in the National Assembly.
The crackdown also drove most of the party’s top leadership, among the country’s most popular and capable politicians, into exile. Most remain in self-imposed exile to avoid being jailed on various charges they say are trumped up and unfair.
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Saturday’s highest-profile campaign activities were held by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, which has huge advantages in manpower, money and organization. Its supporters, garbed in blue and white party garb, marched en masse in the capital, Phnom Penh, and other cities, while other parties held activities on a much smaller scale.
Before marching through the capital, Hun Sen, fellow leaders of his party and several thousand supporters, gathered at a convention center, where the prime minister gave a speech largely touting his administration’s achievements and stating his party’s platform.
”’ am confident that my compatriots who have already seen the progress of Cambodia in full peace, independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity will now continue to vote for the Cambodian People’s Party and me to continue to lead the country for the seventh legislature,” Hun Sen said, according to the English translation of his speech.
Keeping the Candlelight Party off the ballot was just part of efforts to keep Hun Sen’s opponents in check.
The National Assembly last week unanimously approved changes to the country’s election law that will ban anyone who fails to vote from running as a candidate in future elections, a move that Hun Sen declared would serve to compel candidates for public office to prove their civic responsibility.
But critics charged it was aimed at handicapping opposition to the ruling party, by making it hard to lead an election boycott. Other amendments in the law also serve to discourage election protests.
Grant Peck reported from Bangkok.
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