PHNOM PENH —
Cambodia's next election will be in July 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Wednesday, as leaders of the opposition face legal charges they say are politically motivated to stop them challenging the veteran premier in the vote.
Long before the Southeast Asian nation goes to the ballot box, political tension has risen. The last election in 2013 marked self-styled strongman Hun Sen's toughest challenge in three decades of rule.
The opposition, led by Hun Sen's longtime foe Sam Rainsy, accused the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of cheating its way to victory and boycotted parliament for a year.
Hun Sen said in a televised speech on Wednesday the next election would be held on July 22, 2018.
"I hope there won't be any reason to reject the election results then and make allegations that 1.2 million or 1.5 million votes are missing," said Hun Sen, referring to accusations by Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2013 that millions were missing from voter lists.
The CPP won the election with a greatly reduced majority and Hun Sen has since reshuffled his ageing cabinet.
Critics say Hun Sen is following a two-track strategy: trying to woo back CPP voters while using the judiciary to weaken the opposition.
Sam Rainsy has been in exile since November to avoid jail on charges for which he had previously received a royal pardon.
Kem Sokha, Rainsy's deputy, faces charges for defamation and procurement of prostitution after recordings of a telephone conversation purportedly between him and a woman were leaked. Legal cases have also been filed against prominent CNRP members and rights workers related to the Kem Sokha case. Last year, two CNRP lawmakers were beaten outside parliament during a pro-CPP demonstration. Hun Sen's bodyguards were tried for the attacks.
After the shock of the 2013 vote, Hun Sen had reverted to the legal and physical intimidation tactics used in the 2008 and 2003 elections, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Authorities have also cracked down on civil society groups. Rights group LICAHDO says there are 29 political prisoners in Cambodian jails, up from none a year ago.
"This is all a variation on how Hun Sen has run Cambodia since the early 1990s," said Sebastian Strangio, author of the book, "Hun Sen's Cambodia."
"A mix of populist appeal and strongman threats, sweetened with a dollop of political patronage," Strangio said.