PHNOM PENH — Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy arrived in Phnom Penh Friday after nearly four years in self-imposed exile. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the capital to welcome him back, little more than a week before the country goes to the polls.
Earlier this week the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party estimated that 20,000 people would line the road to the airport on Friday to welcome Sam Rainsy, and that a further 20,000 would congregate in Freedom Park, the public space where he later addressed his supporters.
Far more turned out. Several tens of thousands lined the airport road. Some observers estimated the crowd at more than 100,000.
Even Sam Rainsy himself was astonished at his reception. He spoke briefly to VOA after arriving on stage at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh to address thousands of supporters, saying he was very touched to be home.
"Incredible. I cannot find words to express my emotions," Rainsy said.
He also predicted the outcome for elections set for July 28.
"If the election were free and fair, we would win a landslide victory."
Rainsy then set off to address the adoring crowd, standing side-by-side with deputy party leader Kem Sokha, the man who has led the opposition’s electoral charge in his absence.
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in 2009 ahead of an 11-year jail term on charges that the opposition and others have long held were trumped up.
Earlier this month, after nearly four years away, he pledged to return regardless of the consequences. The United States was one donor that told the Cambodian government it would take a dim view if it jailed the leader of the opposition.
And so a week ago a pardon was ordered by Rainsy’s great political rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose ruling Cambodian People's Party has more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament and which is expected to win this election. The pardon, said a government spokesman, was to promote peace and national reconciliation.
Rainsy’s return leaves him with just a week or so to campaign. On Saturday, Rainsy and Kem Sokha will together visit key provinces to try and boost the opposition’s chances.
One man who will not need any persuading is Narith, a government employee who was waiting at the airport for Rainsy. Narith, who was reluctant to give his full name, said he has long admired Sam Rainsy and his policies, particularly the opposition’s pledge to boost the salaries of public servants.
“He’s our hope." Our hope because he plans to have like the teacher or officer salary higher - better than now," he said. "Now is bad condition. I mean salary cannot survive. And Mr. Sam Rainsy, my hero, he will provide us with this expectation.”
The size of Friday’s turnout makes it clear that the opposition leader is the hope for many others too, and that will surely unsettle some in the ruling party.
Yet few analysts believe Rainsy’s presence will see a change in government: Hun Sen and his party remain popular, particularly in rural areas. Cambodia’s rolls of eligible voters are also in disarray, leading to worries that the polls remain vulnerable to rigging.