Cambodians vote in local polls as revived opposition vies for seats

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Cambodians voted in local polls on Sunday as a revived opposition party attempted to dent Prime Minister Hun Sen's decades-long grip on power ahead of national elections next year.

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 percent 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 in 2023.

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, trucks, 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.

- 'last hope' -

"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.

UN Human Rights Office spokeswoman 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.

The CP is well-positioned to attract supporters and is the only party that "poses a realistic threat" to Hun Sen's CPP, according to Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodian politics and the author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia".

"A strong opposition showing would demonstrate that the popular discontent with CPP rule continues to simmer beneath the surface of Cambodian politics," he told AFP.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan downplayed the threat, telling AFP that his party would "overwhelmingly" win.

"The whole glass has already broken. So these small pieces of glass are not strong," Sok Eysan said, referring to the opposition movement.

An estimated 9.2 million people are registered to cast ballots on Sunday.

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