Vast crowd rallies for Cambodia ruling party before uncontested vote

Phnom Penh (AFP) –


A sea of supporters in the white and blue of Cambodia's ruling party rallied Friday in Phnom Penh on the final campaign day for an election without a credible opposition, with strongman Hun Sen set for a big win.

Tens of thousands of people arrived from dawn in the centre of the capital, some on motorbikes and buses, in an impressive show of support for the Cambodia People's Party (CPP), which premier Hun Sen has led for 33 years.

He was scheduled to address the crowd, which organisers estimated would swell to around 250,000.

But it will be the only political showing of significant scale ahead of Sunday's election after the only serious opposition was dissolved by a court order in November.

The one-sided nature of the poll failed to dampen enthusiasm in Friday's crowd.

"With the CPP we have growth, we have schools, peace... everything," said Khun Bopha of a party that now presides over an economy chugging along at a growth rate of around six to seven percent.

"We will have a big win on July 29."

The Supreme Court knocked out the opposition after Hun Sen accused the Cambodia National Rescue Party members of plotting against the government.

Rights groups, NGOs and the media were all swept up in the crackdown last year as Hun Sen quashed critical voices and challengers in the lead-up to the vote.

The opposition, many of whose key members live abroad for fear of prosecution, have urged supporters to boycott the poll in a "clean finger" campaign to refuse to be inked at polling stations on Sunday.

Election authorities have said calls to boycott are a "crime" and have already fined five former members of the opposition in northern Cambodia after accusing them of taking part in the anti-election campaign.

The United States and the European Union have pulled assistance and monitors after challenging the credibility of the election.

But staunch Cambodia ally China has stepped in to provide equipment.

Cambodia has held six elections -- including the first UN-sponsored poll in 1993 -- after the country of 15 million emerged from decades of civil war and the ravages of the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen has cast himself as the saviour of the country from the ruins of war, even though he was a former member of the ultra-Maoist group.

Twenty parties are running in the election but many are new or of obscure origins and have been widely criticised for helping legitimise the ballot by taking part.

"Cambodia's election is a sham process that is designed to prolong Hun Sen's authoritarian rule and will plunge the country into further misery and repression," International Federation for Human Rights Secretary-General Debbie Stothard said in a statement Thursday.