Sam Rainsy's return heralds last hurrah for yesterday's man
Sam Rainsy's rousing welcome home to Cambodia after exile spiced up today's poll but he represents little more than a yearning for change
David Eimer in Phnom Penh
The triumphant homecoming of Sam Rainsy, Cambodia's leading opposition politician, a couple of weeks before today's election was greeted with a mix of surprise and exultation.
After receiving a royal pardon for a criminal conviction his supporters say was trumped up, he was met by enthusiastic crowds when he arrived in Phnom Penh on July 19.
Sam Rainsy's return after four years of exile in France injected some much-needed drama into an election that seemed destined only to confirm strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen's and his Cambodian People's Party's overwhelming grip on power.
Hun Sen will no doubt win today's ballot. But the 64-year-old Sam Rainsy's presence has galvanised the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, of which he is president.
"His return has given the campaign new life. Two weeks ago people were ignoring us. Now, they are recognising us," said Mu Sochua, the MP for Battambang, a leading party member and a long-time confidant of Sam Rainsy. "He is an icon and we have been missing him for a long time. You can tell from the crowds who came to see his return how close he is to the people."
But Sam Rainsy is not on the ballot paper after the National Election Committee ruled he was ineligible because he was removed from the electoral register last year.
He had wanted to challenge Hun Sen on his home turf in Kandal province, south of Phnom Penh, and the ban was greeted with dismay.
"Hun Sen thinks it is too much of a risk to bring him back into the full political arena," said Mu Sochua. "People have to ask themselves, does Hun Sen just want to win the election or does he want to be recognised as a legitimate leader?"
Many see Hun Sen's decision to allow Sam Rainsy to return and then stop him from running as just another demonstration of the political cunning that has helped the president cling to power for 28 years.
"It's a tactical decision by Hun Sen. By letting him return just before the election, it gives the outside world the image of a free and fair election," said Koul Panha, the executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
"The reality is it's going to be the least free and fair election since 1993, and that's entirely because this is the first election where the leading opposition candidate hasn't been allowed to stand."
Hun Sen's decision to request a pardon for Sam Rainsy from King Norodom Sihamoni was likely prompted by rumblings from Washington that it would cut off aid if the election was not deemed fair.
Sam Rainsy fled to Paris in 2009, the year before he was sentenced in absentia to 11 years in prison for allegedly inciting racial discrimination and spreading disinformation about the demarcation of the border with Vietnam.
Born in Phnom Penh in 1949, his privileged family background, which includes Chinese ancestry, provided him with the ideal preparation for dealing with the vagaries of Cambodian politics.
His father, Sam Sary, was deputy prime minister in the 1950s but disappeared in unknown circumstances in 1963. His mother was a teacher and reputed to be the first Cambodian woman to pass the French Baccalaureate exam.
Moving to Paris - the city that has been home for much of his life - when he was 16, Sam Rainsy gained a degree in economics and then a MBA before working as an investment banker.
His establishment background is in stark contrast to Hun Sen's peasant roots and time as a Khmer Rouge battalion commander. Living in France undoubtedly saved Sam Rainsy from meeting the same fate as the millions who perished at the hands of Pol Pot's fanatical revolutionaries.
Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Sam Rainsy did not return home. When he did come back in 1992, he had three children and was married to Tioulong Saumura, whose father was briefly prime minister in 1962. A year later, he was elected an MP for the royalist Funcinpec party, which ruled in a coalition with the Hun Sen's CPP.
Appointed finance minister, he was soon expelled from the party and government and formed the Khmer Nation Party in 1995, which changed its name to the Sam Rainsy Party three years later.
A skilful orator, Sam Rainsy established himself as the only realistic alternative to Hun Sen, and as such was swiftly targeted. Stripped of his parliamentary immunity after accusing the CPP and Hun of corruption, he went into exile in 2005, returning after receiving the first of his royal pardons in 2006.
Yet, while his spells in exile only embellish his impeccable opposition credentials, much has changed in Cambodia since he last left in 2009.
For a start, the party that bears his name is no more. Last year it merged with the Kem Sokha-led Human Rights Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party in an effort to maximise opposition efforts.
It was a radical move in a country where people tend to vote for personalities rather than policies, and it remains to be seen how well Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha will work together.
"Sam Rainsy's leadership style isn't so different from Hun Sen's. He's been a dictator in a way in his party too. Now he's going to be forced to acknowledge the other people in the opposition," said Kem Ley, a political analyst and director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
He also has missed the remarkable rise of grassroots groups, a phenomenon unknown even five years ago, prompted by discontent over illegal land grabs, labour rights abuses and corruption.
"I think he has been abroad for so long that he doesn't fully understand the current reality in Cambodia. I don't think he is as aware of the civil society as other people in his party are," Kem Ley said.
Nor has he addressed the thorny issue of how to deal with China. Beijing and Phnom Penh have been close since Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953, but many believe it is an unequal relationship.
"The fact that China uses Cambodia as a wedge against the other Asean nations is bad politics and makes us much more dependent on Beijing. At the moment, we're like a district of China," said Lao Mong Hay, a former professor of Asian Studies at Toronto University.
But with no visible alternative, the Cambodia National Rescue Party is counting on Sam Rainsy's presence on the campaign trail to boost turnout among supporters and so help them gain more seats in parliament, which would at least allow the party to act as a more effective check on Hun Sen.
Ultimately, though, Sam Rainsy's moment has probably past. With almost two-thirds of Cambodia's population under 30, he is regarded as too old to lead the country into a new era.
"Sam Rainsy is yesterday's man. My belief is that the young people want to see a new leader," Kem Ley said. "I think the crowds that turned out for him were calling for change as much as they were cheering his homecoming."