Cambodia kicks off campaign for controversial election

A supporter of the Khmer Will Party (left) greets supporters of the Cambodian People's Party during political campaigning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 7, 2018.
A supporter of the Khmer Will Party (left) greets supporters of the Cambodian People's Party during political campaigning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on July 7, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodian political parties on Saturday (July 7) kicked off a three-week-long campaign for a controversial general election on July 29, which strongman Hun Sen is poised to sweep after the main opposition were disbanded and their senior members driven into self-exile.

Hun Sen - who has ruled Cambodia for 33 years - told a sea of supporters dressed in matching T-shirts adorned with the logo of his ruling party, that his government would ensure peace, economic growth and raise salaries for workers in the key garment sector every year.

He also boasted about the role of his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in ending the rule of the Khmer Rouge and muffling the threat of what he labels a "colour revolution" led by the former opposition.

"I have led the country through many dangerous situations... despite attempts by some ill-willed groups inside and outside of the country to create all kinds of difficulties to hamper our journey in building, protecting and developing the nation," Hun Sen said.

With his usual populist flourish, he promised better roads and schools in rural areas and to bring down electricity bills.

"If you love peace and development, please vote for CPP," he said.

"When CPP wins, people win," he added.

After Hun Sen's speech, tens of thousands of his supporters took to the capital's streets for a colourful march, while motor scooters and cars adorned with party banners roared up and down the roads.

In recent years, Hun Sen, one of the world's longest serving leaders, has tried hard to court the nation's youth, launching a Facebook page and displaying a lighter, more approachable side in public.

He has also reached out to the kingdom's 800,000 garment workers with cash and pay rises to mollify an industry that has often clashed with his government.

Twenty political parties are registered to compete in the national election for the 125 parliamentary seats.

But Hun Sen is poised to win the vote after the main opposition party was dissolved by a court last year in a sweeping crackdown of dissent.

Western democracies have withdrawn support for the election.

Still, Chinese backing for the poll remains, highlighting unwavering support from Beijing that has relieved Hun Sen of his former reliance on Western donors.

Analysts say that China's political and financial support has emboldened Hun Sen's unprecedented crackdown on critics in politics, the media and civil society - an assault spurred by major gains by the opposition in 2013 and 2017 polls.

China has also provided ballot boxes and computers for the July election.