By Prak Chan Thul
Tens of thousands of supporters of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen rallied in Phnom Penh on the last day of campaigning for Sunday's general election, in which he faces almost no challenge to extending 33 years in power.
The election will be Cambodia's sixth since it emerged from decades of war in 1993 and critics of Hun Sen brand the vote a sham after the elimination of the main opposition party and a crackdown on independent media and dissent.
"I won't lead the party into defeat," Hun Sen told supporters on Friday, as they waved the blue flags of his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
Bands sang songs praising Hun Sen, the world's longest serving prime minister, a former Khmer Rouge commander who eventually defected from Pol Pot's murderous regime.
The election has been criticized by the United Nations and Western countries as fundamentally flawed after the Supreme Court last year dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) over accusations of plotting to topple the government. Its leader, Kem Sokha, was imprisoned for treason.
The party, which only narrowly lost the 2013 election, denied the accusation and most CNRP leaders have since fled abroad, leaving no significant competitor to Hun Sen's party.
Of the 19 other parties standing on Sunday, none are strongly critical of Hun Sen or the government. Smaller parties together won less than 7 percent of the vote in 2013.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) warned the vote was a foregone conclusion.
"This is a farcical ritual to rubber stamp Hun Sen's grip on power," APHR chairman Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament, said in a statement.
Voting is voluntary in Cambodia, so turnout will be a key test of the CPP's legitimacy. It was nearly 70 percent in 2013.
Some exiled opposition members urged Cambodians to boycott the election and some voters told Reuters this week that they were being coerced into voting for Hun Sen's CPP, a claim the party denies.
"People have the right to vote and not to vote and it’s illegal to force people to go to vote," said Tep Nytha, secretary general of the National Election Committee.
About 8.3 million people have been registered to vote at 22,000 polling stations, the committee said, adding that campaigning had been smooth apart from some traffic jams.
Hun Sen, 65, told supporters his party had led Cambodia to prosperity. Once synonymous with conflict and poverty, Cambodia has been the world's sixth fastest growing economy over the past two decades, the World Bank says. Growth of 6.9 percent is expected this year.
RULING PARTY DOMINATES
In Phnom Penh, campaigning has been dominated by the CPP, whose supporters often zip through the capital's streets on motorbikes waving the party's flags.
"I think there won't be any change, it will be Samdech again," said 19-year old Sum Davin, a student, referring to Hun Sen by his official title.
"People have only heard of one party and nobody knows the other parties," he said, adding that he would vote despite the opposition's boycott call.
Kem Sokha's daughter Kem Monovithya said opposition members "simply want to use their right to show their discontent with this sham election".
Sebastian Strangio, author of the book "Hun Sen's Cambodia", said condemnation from some Western governments would have little impact on Hun Sen, who has won support and billions of dollars in investment and military aid from China.
The United States has imposed visa curbs on some Cambodian government members over the crackdown and levied sanctions in June on a high-ranking official close to Hun Sen.
The European Union has threatened Cambodia with economic sanctions.
"With Western countries promising further sanctions, and Hun Sen unlikely to back down from his current course, Cambodia is set for a new era of turbulent relations with the West," Strangio said.
(Writing and additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Clarence Fernandez)