VIENNA - Cambodians vote on June 3rd in local elections that are a preview of national parliament polls next year. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is unable to campaign at home because of a conviction he says was politically motivated. But he is visiting countries in Europe, pressing his case for fair elections and human rights.
As Cambodia prepares for local polls, the self-exiled leader of the opposition party is in Europe, speaking with officials and overseas Cambodians.
Sam Rainsy discussed election concerns with officials from the Austrian Foreign Affairs Ministry. Under portraits of royalty, he and Bruno Bilek spoke casually in what was less than an official diplomatic meeting.
"Actually it was an exchange of views and we were speaking on Cambodia and the forthcoming elections next year. What we hope is that the elections will be free and fair and transparent and that every party and every politician has access to means for campaigning and can compete fairly and freely for seats," Bilek said.
Outside observers worry that vote-buying and intimidation could mar the polls as in the last national election in 2008. But Sam Rainsy says even though he will not be present, his party is running a competitive campaign.
"What is important is not the physical presence but the virtual presence and the party depends on its ideology, on its machinery, on its human resources, on its organization," Rainsy said.
The politician says he also discussed human rights, a topic he raised in a recent stop in Switzerland. He spoke with United Nations officials and other groups about worker wages and their right to unionize.
"Those rights are being denied by the Cambodian authorities So I have to help my fellow compatriots before any institution that could help," Rainsy said.
As Southeast Asian economies continue to grow as an important trading partner, Bruno Bilek says Austria is following developments in Cambodia.
"We have relations politically and economically. Of course, as a country which is not so close to Austria, the relationship is not as intense as it is with neighboring countries. But what is important also is Cambodia, within ASEAN, in the ASEAN and also EU-ASEAN, in the general context -- this is an important issue for us," Bilek said.
In the 2008 poll, Sam Rainsy’s party took just 26 of the 123 seats in parliament. While Hun Sen’s ruling party is still accused of heavy handed tactics influencing the electoral process, Rainsy remains hopeful.
"The wind of freedom is blowing all over the world, and this wind of freedom will reach Cambodia eventually," Rainsy said.
Observers say the results of June polls will be a sign for national elections in July, 2013.