PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Registration began Monday for political parties contesting Cambodia's upcoming general election, with Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissing calls for a boycott by opposition supporters whose party was dissolved by pro-government courts last year.
Hun Sen said in a speech to school graduates on Monday that the July 29 election will proceed as planned and will not be obstructed by any individuals or groups.
Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled leader of what was the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, reiterated his group's position that voters should not cast their ballots if his party is not allowed to contest the election.
"In the present circumstances, only such a boycott can help bring about a democratic change and help us gain the freedom and justice we have been longing for," Sam Rainsy said in a weekend Facebook post.
Sam Rainsy's CNRP was the only opposition party in parliament until its lawmakers were ousted by a November court ruling that it had engaged in treasonous activities. Sam Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile for more than two years to avoid a prison term in what he says is a politically motivated case. The party's co-leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail awaiting trial on the treason allegation, which he also has decried as a political move.
Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades and has said repeatedly that he intends to serve two more five-year terms.
"The process of democracy in Cambodia will not be obstructed by any individual or any group because pluralistic democracy continues to be alive," Hun Sen said.
His reference to pluralistic democracy repeated a theme sounded by his Cambodian People's Party that because many parties are expected to run candidates in the election, the contest will be fair and democratic. Critics, however, say the defunct CNRP, the only one aside from the ruling party with a national following, would be the only credible challenger, and allege that at least some of the other groups contesting the polls are supported by Hun Sen's ruling party.
Earlier this month, the National Election Committee warned that anyone urging voters to boycott the election or otherwise interfering in the polls could face criminal charges.
"Because a dictator isn't allowing the CNRP to participate in the election, our decision not to go to vote essentially means we are voting in our hearts for the CNRP. We believe that, as an act of passive resistance, our decision to boycott the official election will help to peacefully put an end to dictatorship," Sam Rainsy said in his Facebook post.
"The insignificant political parties (with no elected representatives) which take part in the fake election because they want to take advantage of the CNRP's absence, are no more than puppets in the hands of a ruling party seeking to cling on to power," he said.
The moves against the CNRP, along with a crackdown on the media that has silenced almost all critical voices in the country, are seen as an effort by Hun Sen's party to ensure that it prevails at the polls, after signs of softening support in the last general election in 2013 and local elections last year.