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On Eve of Campaigns, an Absent Leader

As 11 political parties finish final preparations for a one-month campaign period that starts Thursday, one leader, and former prime minister, is missing. Prince Norodom Ranariddh remains in exile, leading his eponymous party from Malaysia.

Prince Ranariddh, who left the country in early 2007, faces an 18-month prison sentence and a fine of $150,000 if he returns to Cambodia, on charges related to embezzlement. He has not been pardoned, and his case remains at the Supreme Court.

You Hockry, secretary-general of the Norodom Ranariddh Party, said the absence of the prince is due to political intentions, by "the chief of government" and Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhek Bun Chhay, who have tried to prevent Prince Ranariddh from election participation.

Prince Ranariddh is a candidate for his party in Kampong Cham, the most-populated province, with 18 parliamentary seats up for grabs, and is his party's candidate for prime minister. Several months before the campaign, he was forced to address supporters by telephone from abroad.

"We regret fundamentally that Samdech Krom Preah [Prince Ranariddh], president of the NRP, cannot participate equally with other parties," You Hockry said. "It will impact the result of the vote and especially the campaign."

Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, called the exile of Prince Ranariddh a type of irregularity.

"For transparency in the campaign, all the parties' leaders must be present," he said.

The party plans to use speeches of the prince, via telephone, to campaign in each province, in order to overcome his absence.

Hang Puthea said this kind of campaign may be good, as voters could have "pity" for the prince.

But Mar Sophal, chief investigator for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said a campaign by telephone would not allow voters to get direct information from the party leader.

In Pailin earlier this week US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli called for the return of Prince Ranariddh. Officials will work together to find justice for him, Mussomeli said.