Cambodia opposition chief in new election setback

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy lost his attempt to regain lawmaker status Thursday in a new setback to his efforts to challenge strongman premier Hun Sen in this weekend's election.

Rainsy returned to Cambodia last week after receiving a surprise royal pardon for criminal convictions which he contends were politically motivated.

But he is barred from running as a parliamentary candidate since the authorities said it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.

Rainsy turned to the ruling party-dominated National Assembly Tuesday in an attempt to regain his seat -- a move he had hoped would make him eligible to vote and also stand for election.

Heng Samrin, the president of the parliament, told Rainsy in a letter Thursday his request was denied because he had left his party to form the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has no seats in the assembly.

"This is a politically motivated case and the (ruling) Cambodian People's Party is scared by Sam Rainsy's popularity," CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told AFP.

"This clearly shows that the election is not going to be free and fair," he said, adding that the opposition would try all possible ways to enable Rainsy to participate in the polls.

Rainsy also asked the country's Constitutional Council to reinstate him as a voter and a candidate.

But the body also rejected his request on Thursday, saying it had no authority to make a decision in his case.

Yim Sovann said the party was considering whether to appeal to the King in a last-ditch attempt to enable Rainsy to run.

"But perhaps we will leave it to the voters to decide whether or not they are happy" with Rainsy being barred from the polls, Yim Sovann said.

When asked if there would be protests against the decision, he said: "It is up to the people if they are satisfied or not."

Rainsy, seen as the only major challenger to Hun Sen, returned to Cambodia on July 19 from France, where he had lived since fleeing in 2009.

The 64-year-old had faced a total of 11 years in jail but was pardoned by King Sihamoni earlier this month at Hun Sen's request.

Rainsy was stripped of his parliamentary seat in 2011 and removed from the electoral register late last year.

Last month all 28 opposition MPs were stripped of their status by a committee made up of ruling party members, which accused them of violating parliament's internal rules by joining forces to form a new party.

They are still allowed to take part in Sunday's election.

Hun Sen is one of Southeast Asia's longest-serving leaders. His CPP won the last two polls by a landslide amid allegations of fraud and election irregularities.

His government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and muzzling activists. In May Hun Sen said he would try to stay in power for another decade.

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