Tuk-tuks and flags as Cambodia opposition eyes bellwether local polls

Leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha addressing supporters during the Commune Election Campaign in Phnom Penh on May 20.
Leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha addressing supporters during the Commune Election Campaign in Phnom Penh on May 20. PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Tuk-tuks blaring pop music and flag-waving supporters of Cambodia's embattled opposition led a rally on Saturday (May 20) for upcoming local elections, a bellwether for efforts to end the three-decade rule of strongman Hun Sen in next year's national polls.

The June 4 vote in more than 1,600 communes - administrative clusters of villages - will take Cambodia's political temperature ahead of a general election in 2018 that is expected to go to the wire.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is desperate to end Hun Sen's rule, which they say is increasingly corrupt and repressive.

But the party has been squarely outmanoeuvred by the wily premier, who pegs himself as a stabilising force in a country still recovering from the horrors of the genocidal Khmer Rouge era.

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His Cambodia People's Party (CPP) draws the loyalty of many older Cambodians who fear political change could reopen historic wounds and dent a surging economy.

The rival CNRP has been hemmed in by legal cases since losing a disputed 2013 general election by a whisker.

Addressing thousands of opposition supporters at a Phnom Penh rally on Saturday, CNRP leader Kem Sokha said political change was in the horizon.

"We have travelled through obstacles, rainstorms and lightning... but the CNRP has managed to survive and is stepping forward," he said to cheers from the supporters, many  with CNRP stickers on their cheeks.

Kem Sokha took over the party leadership in March after long-time chief Sam Rainsy stood down amid a welter of legal cases that threatened to see the CNRP disbanded.

A strong showing by the CNRP in the June polls would send "shockwaves" through the ruling party, according to Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodian politics and author of a recent book on the mercurial premier Hun Sen.

"The CPP risks losing control of a lower level of government that they have controlled since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979," he added.

Conversely, weak support for the CNRP could spell disaster in next year's national vote.

The CPP held a rival rally in the capital, which also drew thousands.

Hun Sen has overseen Cambodia's transition from a country ravaged by genocide to one of the region's fastest growing economies with a young, optimistic population.

But many Cambodians have grown weary of endemic corruption and rights abuses while Hun Sen's family and friends have also become hugely wealthy over the years.