cambodians vote in local polls as revived opposition vies for seats - Cambodians vote in local polls as revived opposition vies for seats

PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Cambodians voted in local polls on Sunday (June 5) as a revived opposition party attempted to dent Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decades-long grip on power ahead of national elections next year.

Mr Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, has ruled Cambodia for more than 37 years and turned the nation into a one-party state at the 2018 general election, winning every parliamentary seat.

Critics and rights groups have accused him of creating a climate of fear by locking up scores of political opponents and activists.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – which won 44 per cent of the popular vote in previous local elections in 2017 – was forced to forfeit its positions after a court dissolved the party later that year.

Scores of opposition figures have since fled the country, while others have been arrested.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested and jailed for more than a year, is facing a treason trial, while CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy is living in France to escape convictions he says are politically motivated.

Sunday’s vote in 1,652 communes, or village clusters, will take the country’s political pulse ahead of the national elections next year.

Mr Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) made a show of strength in the capital Phnom Penh on Friday with a massive parade of cars, lorries, motorcycles and tuk-tuks greeted by flag-waving supporters.

A total of 17 political parties are running in the local election, with more than 11,600 positions up for grabs – the majority of which are presently controlled by the ruling party.

But all eyes are on the performance of the Candlelight Party (CP) – founded by Rainsy in 1995 – which has registered candidates to contest nearly all communes and has been gaining strong support.

“The Candlelight Party is the last hope for the people, although we are suffering from intimidation and threats, and political harassment,” party secretary-general Lee Sothearayuth told AFP.

United Nations Human Rights Office spokesman Liz Throssell said she was disturbed by patterns of obstruction targeting opposition candidates ahead of the poll.

She warned that the CP “faces a paralysing political environment” after at least six candidates and activists were arrested in the run-up to the vote.