PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's longtime ruler warned opposition parties Friday not to challenge the result of Sunday's local elections or they could be dissolved.
Prime Minister Hun Sen made a rare appearance on the last day of rallies before the vote to drum up support for his ruling Cambodian People's Party. He has repeatedly warned of civil war if his party loses. It has been accused of using violence or the threat of violence against opponents, but in recent years has stalked its foes mostly in courts.
The polls could have a major impact on Cambodia's political landscape ahead of 2018 national elections. Hun Sen's iron grip on power was shaken four years ago when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party won 55 of the 123 national assembly seats in the last general election. The opposition claimed it actually won but was cheated out of its victory and says it is confident it will sweep Sunday's polls for seats in 1,646 communes — or clusters of villages — throughout the country.
Hun Sen, appearing at a rally apparently for the first time in around 20 years, appealed to all political parties to accept the outcome rather than make accusations of irregularities, saying courts can dissolve any party if it challenges the result of the vote.
"There is absolutely only the Cambodian People's Party that has a full ability to control and maintain peace for the sake of continuing to develop our country," he said. "I do hope all parties will accept the outcome. Despite the fact we do not know yet which political party will win, I am sure our party will."
Riding at the head of a motorcade procession of tens of thousands of his supporters, Hun Sen waved to crowds and addressed them through loudspeakers as the convoy made rounds in Phnom Penh.
Several hours later, opposition leader Kem Sokha addressed tens of thousands of supporters in the streets of Phnom Penh, promising to reduce corruption and the use of illegal drugs in the country if his Cambodia National Rescue Party wins.
Hun Sen and some of his top ministers have frequently used strong rhetoric leading up to the vote, warning of dire consequences should the opposition win, in what has been seen as an attempt to intimidate voters into supporting him.
This week, Amnesty International accused Cambodia's government of using its grip on the judiciary system to intimidate human rights defenders and political activists. It said in a report that since the 2013 general election, Hun Sen's government has used the courts as a tool to imprison at least 27 prominent opposition officials, human rights defenders and land activists, as well as hundreds of others facing legal cases.
Also early this month, the State Department said the U.S. was urging Cambodia's government to "guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation" and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.
In the last communal elections in 2012, Hun Sen's party received 60 percent of the vote compared to the Cambodia National Rescue Party's 30.6 percent.
The ruling party could also take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge's regime in the 1970s. Hun Sen left the movement that was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and executions before it was toppled in 1979.