PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's long-time premier Hun Sen on Friday (July 27) appealed for people to cast their ballot in his last rally before Sunday's election, as a boycott campaign spearheaded by political exiles threatened to reduce turnout of the 8.3 million registered voters.
"Those who vote are those who support democracy," he told a gathering of a few thousand people gathered in Koh Pich, a fast-developing section of Phnom Penh filled with grandiose buildings and wide boulevards. "Those who don't vote - due to provocation by the treasonous (people) and destroyers - are those who destroy democracy, and will regret this."
Sunday's (July 29) election has been bitterly opposed by supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the strongest challenger to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in recent years.
Since winning 55 out of 123 parliament seats in the 2013 election, CNRPs' power has been steadily stripped away. Then CNRP leader Sam Rainsy left the country in 2015 to escape a jail term for defamation which he claims was politically motivated.
CNRP's subsequent president Kem Sokha was detained last September - and remains in jail - pending trial for treason. The party was dissolved by a court ruling last November and its parliamentary seats redistributed. Several senior politicians have fled abroad to evade possible arrest.
Mr Hun Sen, who has been premier for over three decades, looks set to win another term as the 19 other parties in the election are far smaller than the CPP.
Since the last election, the government has also courted approval by progressively raising the minimum wage for civil servants as well as workers in the garment and footwear industry, which employs 760,000 people.
Analysts point out that if opposition voters choose to stay away, the CPP may win an even bigger majority.
"There is no competition," Mr Kong Sarin, a retired doctor, told The Straits Times over noodles in a Phnom Penh coffeeshop. Many of his friends, he shared, are planning trips out of Phnom Penh to avoid voting.
A record 90 per cent of voters cast their ballots during the commune elections in June last year, when the CNRP won 489 commune council chief seats out of 1,646 nationwide, and the CPP bagged 1,156. After the CNRP's dissolution in November), its parliamentary and commune council seats were redistributed.
France-based Rainsy, in a Khmer-language video that was posted online on Thursday (July26), asked supporters not to be intimidated by threats against people who boycott the vote. He said: "Don't vote for a fake election and don't be the rubber stamp for the supreme leader and servants who lead the country brutally, cruelly, who steal from the nation, sell the nation, destroy the nation, mistreat citizens and kill democracy."
While abstaining from voting is not a crime, officials have warned that those who advocate the "clean finger" boycott campaign - in reference to the anti-fraud ink used on fingers of people who have voted - is a violation of electoral rules.
On Thursday, five former members of the CNRP in Battambang province were reportedly fined 10 million riel (S$3,300) each by an election body, for taking pictures of their clean index fingers and posting them on Facebook.