A Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporter shouts slogans in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Large areas of Phnom Penh came to a standstill on Friday as Cambodia’s two main political parties held their final rallies before Sunday’s pivotal commune election.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) started early in the day with a strongly attended and well-managed parade. Breaking with custom and underscoring the high stakes, Prime Minister Hun Sen led the procession.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had to wait until the afternoon, but its loyal supporters were in high spirits as they gathered symbolically in front of Wat Chas, the pagoda where murdered political commentator Kem Ley’s funeral was held last year. Many believe the CPP critic’s death was politically motivated.

Permission for the CNRP’s rally was only given on Thursday, hinting at an unequal electoral playing field favoring the incumbent CPP. The Phnom Penh municipality reportedly denied the CNRP’s request to begin from the capital’s Freedom Park, the site of the party’s post-election protest demonstrations in 2013.

If Friday was for festivities, Sunday will be all business, as 7.8 million registered voters head to the polls in what many commentators view as a bellwether for next year’s general election. Over 88,000 commune council candidates will vie for positions in 1,646 communes nationwide.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) greets supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

At the last commune election in 2012, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party – which merged the following year to form the CNRP – won a combined total of just 40 communes, compared to the CPP’s 1,592.

However, the CNRP strongly challenged the CPP at the following year’s general election, which the long ruling party narrowly won. And while the opposition might be optimistic about its chances on Sunday, it is no doubt going into the vote intimidated and dazed.

Amendments to the country’s political parties law in February could have led to the CNRP’s dissolution. But Sam Rainsy, who has been in exile since late 2015, decided to step down as the party’s president days before the law was passed to avert legal danger. The vaguely-worded amendments could still pose a threat to the party in the coming months.

The party’s vice-president, Kem Sokha, was later promoted and three new vice-presidents were named, splitting power equally between the CNRP’s two composite parties.

Kem Sokha (L), leader of Cambodia National Rescue Party, greets supporters at a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

A complete list of alleged abuses and repression of the opposition by the CPP-led government would be extensive. The ruling party, which has been in power since 1979, has campaigned on a pledge to maintain the political and economic status-quo.

It has promised and somewhat delivered in recent years mild reforms and has for years now steered remarkable, though highly unequal, economic growth. But the CPP’s main pitch to the electorate is that it ensures peace and stability.

“Which party toppled the Pol Pot regime?” Hun Sen asked crowds at Friday’s rally referring to the leader of the former murderous Khmer Rouge regime. “Which party has the most achievements developing the country?”

Electoral laws ban politicians from making public threats, but that hasn’t stopped the premier from talking almost incessantly about the perils Cambodians could face if they vote for the CNRP opposition.

“Does anyone want to try a taste of war and family separation anymore?” he asked on Thursday. “This is the theme for the upcoming election, a choice between war and peace.”

Exiled former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped down as Cambodia National Rescue Party leader after legal threats. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Needless to say, the National Election Committee (NEC) has not investigated the premier for any of his comments, no doubt fearful of possible reprisals, analysts say.

The CNRP, meanwhile, has ridden a wave of disaffection with the ruling party. Aside from promising “change”, its long-standing chant, it has made a significant policy pledge to boost commune funding.

Under the CNRP’s plan, each of Cambodia’s 1,646 communes would receive US$500,000 annually – communes now typically receive between US$10,000 and US$30,000 per year, depending on their size.

While commune elections tend to revolve around local issues, the fact that voters select candidates from party lists means that they become inherently bi-partisan. Indeed, the key decision for Cambodian voters on Sunday is “change or no change”, say analysts.

Historically, commune elections were widely viewed as inconsequential; it was always expected that the ruling CPP would secure big wins, chiefly because money politics plays a larger part in local than in general elections.

Sunday’s vote, however, is expected to be different and the CNRP has high hopes of an electoral upset. Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, said he predicts his opposition party will win 60% of the vote, a margin some independent observers believe is possible if the polls are free and fair.

Supporters of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

Yoeurng Sotheara, a law and monitoring officer at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told local media in April that he had seen a fairly large but undisclosed opinion poll that predicted the CNRP could gain up to 60% of commune council seats.

An outright CNRP majority at the local level would certainly alter the balance of Cambodian politics, especially if votes for the opposition are translated into winning communes outright.

The composition of the 61-member Senate, Cambodia’s upper house of parliament, is decided largely by commune officials, as well as National Assembly lawmakers and the monarch.

The CPP now has 46 senators to the CNRP’s 11, but an upset on Sunday would rebalance that in favor of the CNRP. The Senate can feasibly block and modify legislation coming from the National Assembly.

If Sunday’s result is indeed a bellwether for next year’s general elections, then the popular vote might be more revealing than the actual number of communes won by the CNRP.

“Does anyone want to try a taste of war and family separation anymore? This is the theme for the upcoming election, a choice between war and peace.”

– Prime Minister Hun Sen

At the last general election in 2013, the CNRP cut the ruling party’s majority to just 13 seats in the National Assembly. In the popular vote, it secured just 289,793 fewer votes than the CPP – out of more than six million votes.

After decades in power, the ruling party has gerrymandered seating allocations – or, more accurately, failed to change them in line with demographic changes to the country. If those changes were made, which would mean more seats for urban areas, it would help the opposition.

“Each vote cast in the Phnom Penh capital is half the value of a vote cast by their fellow voters in Prey Veng province,” commentator Ou Virak told local media. As a result, he reasoned, the CNRP needs to gain more votes than the CPP for the same number of seats.

Other commentators have characterized the national mood as a fearful optimism ahead of Sunday’s vote. If the CNRP surprises on the upside, it’s unclear how the government will respond considering Hun Sen’s war threats on the hustings.

But if the CNRP nonetheless wins a local level majority, the political temperature will certainly rise headed into a general election season.