The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is expecting at least 40,000 supporters to greet party leader Sam Rainsy on his return to Cambodia Friday morning after nearly four years in self-imposed exile avoiding jail time for convictions widely considered politically motivated.
After securing a royal pardon at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday, Mr. Rainsy announced his plans on his Facebook page the next day to arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport at 9:05 a.m.
“We plan to gather at least 40,000 people, but we think more will come,” said CNRP candidate and party spokesman Yim Sovann.
With numbers that big, he said they planned to split up the crowd, having half greet Mr. Rainsy at the airport while the other half awaited him for a mass rally at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh.
Though Mr. Rainsy will not be able to run in the election, or even cast a vote, having been disqualified for his criminal convictions, Mr. Sovann said the opposition still expected a massive boost at the polls with his return. And with just under two weeks to go until election day on July 28, he said Mr. Rainsy would only be spending one day in Phnom Penh before hitting 15 provinces over the next nine days.
The provinces are where the opposition has typically done worst against Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
In Phnom Penh over the weekend, CNRP supporters appeared reenergized about their party leader’s imminent return.
Though wary of Mr. Hun Sen’s motives for the pardon, they expected gains at the polls and showed no bitterness toward Mr. Rainsy for not risking an earlier return and the prospects of arrest.
Po Koeun, a moto-taxi driver who took time off work to join a CNRP motorcade around Phnom Penh, had been on the road for nearly five hours when the convoy blocked southbound traffic in front of the National Assembly around midday for an impromptu rally Sunday.
Decked out in a CNRP hat and shirt, he was sure Mr. Rainsy’s return to Cambodia would win the opposition extra votes.
“His return gives the people more confidence and they will have more faith in the CNRP,” he said. “His presence will help to make people support the CNRP more since he is the prime ministerial candidate.”
Ken Samrith, a second-year student at the Royal University of Law and Economics also rallying outside the National Assembly, said Mr. Rainsy’s return was unlikely to win over most committed CPP faithful but could attract others yet to make up their minds.
“I am surprised and very happy that our leader has come back,” he said. “His presence will make people in the middle who have yet to decide who to vote for choose the CNRP.”
There was also little fear among CNRP campaigners on Sunday that having Mr. Rainsy back in the country would at all derail a campaign that has been picking up steam behind the populist appeal of the party’s acting president, Kem Sokha.
Keo Naron, who had joined about 300 other CNRP faithful at Freedom Park, said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha would complement each other well.
“They are partners,” he said. “People in the cities like Sam Rainsy, while people in the countryside like Kem Sokha; having both is good.”
Seat Sovath, another campaigner, agreed that having both Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha in the country for the final days of the campaign would only help the opposition, which until this year had been splitting most of the opposition vote between their two parties.
“I think we’ll get a lot of seats in the National Assembly this time,” he said.
“Kem Sokha’s and Sam Rainsy’s popularity will only increase because they are together in the same party, on the same path.”