Cambodia's ruler starts campaigning with opponents silenced

Campaigning officially began Saturday for Cambodia's July 29 general election, with Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling party virtually assured victory because the only credible opposition party was dissolved last year.

Hun Sen, who has led the country for more than three decades, launched his Cambodian People's Party's campaign for the polls at a rally in Phnom Penh. His speech said if his government is returned to office, it will deliver continued economic development in one of the poorest nations in Asia.

The main opposition force, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved last year by court order in what was generally considered a political maneuver by the ruling party. The opposition group's members are urging a boycott of the election.

Twenty parties are contesting the polls but most are tiny and underfunded and others seen as being sponsored by the ruling party in an effort to give the impression of a free and fair election.

The election is Cambodia's sixth since 1993, when the United Nations helped stage the country's first free polls after the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge and civil war.

Hun Sen's party claimed that 60,000 people turned out for its rally.

In his speech, Hun Sen said that if his party wins, the country's infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, bridges and schools, will be expanded throughout the country, the price of electricity reduced and clean water for daily use become more widely available in rural areas.

"Voting for CPP means voting for the continued improvement and enhancement of people's livelihood. Victory for CPP means victory for people," he said.

Hun Sen, 67, has repeatedly said he intends to serve at least two more five-year terms. His authoritarian rule has given him a stranglehold over the state bureaucracy that makes any challenge to his authority difficult.

While he can justifiably boast of having restored peace and stability after decades of war and unrest and promoting economic growth, his critics point out that corruption and injustice have also grown, especially reflected in widespread land-grabbing.

In addition to shutting down the main opposition party, a crackdown on the media has silenced almost all critical voices. There was softening of support for Hun Sen's party in the last general election in 2013 and local elections last year.

Sam Rainsy, one of the co-founders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, is in self-imposed exile to avoid serving a prison term on a defamation conviction that is widely seen as politically inspired. He faces a slew of other charges as well.

The party's other co-founder, Kem Sokha, is in prison awaiting trial on a treason charge, also generally considered to be a political concoction.

Many other of the defunct party's leaders have fled the country.

Explaining his call for an election boycott, Sam Rainsy has said on his popular Facebook page: "Going to vote on 29 July 2018 means that you play the dirty game of a group of traitors led by Hun Sen who is killing democracy and selling off our country. Boycotting that fake and dangerous election means that we uphold our ideals by remaining loyal to our people and determined to rescue ... our motherland."

The National Election Committee warned that anyone urging voters to boycott or otherwise interfering in the polls could face criminal charges.

The polls have also been criticized as undemocratic by rights groups and several Western governments.