PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Huge, exuberant crowds turned out to greet Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy as he returned from exile Friday to spearhead his party's election campaign against well-entrenched Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"I have come home to rescue the country," Rainsy told the crowd gathered at Phnom Penh's airport, after kneeling to kiss the ground. Supporters chanted, "We want change!"
The French-educated leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party had been in exile since 2009 to avoid serving 11 years in prison on charges many consider politically motivated.
Rainsy, 64, received a royal pardon last week at the request of Hun Sen, his bitter rival whose ruling party is almost certain to maintain its ironclad grip on power in the July 28 general election.
Hun Sen has ruled for 28 years, and his party has 90 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. The 60-year-old prime minister recently said that he intends to stay in office until he is 74 — cutting back from an earlier vow to stay in control until he's 90.
The crowd that welcomed Rainsy was one of the largest ever for a political event, and included well-wishers at the airport, throngs along the route into the city and tens of thousands at the capital's Democracy Square, where he spoke at a campaign rally.
Rainsy's claim that a million people in all showed up seemed grossly inflated, but the numbers easily surpassed the 40,000 his party had been projecting.
The capital, however, is a stronghold of the opposition, and it is unclear how much rural voters share that enthusiasm for Rainsy.
Rainsy hit familiar but resonant themes in his speech, saying Cambodia needs change because its natural resources have been plundered, injustice is spreading and corruption is rampant.
He said he was now totally free and would use his freedom "to defend the freedom of all Cambodians."
"I have received the justice that I deserved, and I am offering this justice to all Cambodians who receive injustice from the courts in Cambodia," he said.
Critics of the government claim the election will be neither free nor fair, arguing that Hun Sen's regime manipulates the levers of government and influences the judiciary to weaken the opposition.
Last month, 28 opposition lawmakers were expelled from parliament by a committee run by Hun Sen's party that ruled they had broken the law because they had originally won their seats in the name of the Sam Rainsy Party, but were campaigning under the recently established Cambodia National Rescue Party, into which it was merged.
They can still run in the upcoming election, but without parliamentary immunity, which would protect them against being charged with defamation for their campaign speeches.
Rainsy, a charismatic and fiery speaker, is expected to draw large crowds on a whirlwind schedule taking him to over a dozen provinces in a week. He is likely to push hard on the issues of land grabbing, with tens or hundreds of thousands of Cambodians displaced from their homes and farms under what are often shady circumstances.
Rainsy made his name as corruption fighter when he became finance minister after Cambodia's 1993 election. His stance made him unpopular among fellow politicians, and he was pushed out of his job and the royalist party to which he then belonged. He then founded his own party, which gained small but growing footholds in parliament in the elections of 1998, 2003 and 2008.
Among his supporters at the airport was 74-year-old Chea Pirum who called Rainsy the politician he respected most in Cambodia.
"I've lived through five regimes and I have seen the other leaders, but Sam Rainsy is different," the man said. "He has devoted everything to the country, especially the poor, like me. I hope his return will bring full democracy."
Rainsy's pardon came after the U.S. and others had said his exclusion from the campaign would call into question the polls' legitimacy. Because he was absent during the registration periods, he will be unable to run as a candidate, or even vote, although his lawyers have said they were seeking a way to allow his participation.
This month's election will be the fifth parliamentary poll since the United Nations brokered a peace deal for Cambodia in 1991, a process meant to end decades of bloodshed that included the communist Khmer Rouge's catastrophic 1975-79 rule, during which an estimated 1.7 million people died in torture centers and labor camps or of starvation or disease.