PHNOM KROM, Cambodia -- Cambodians will vote on June 4 in municipal, or commune, elections widely seen as a gauge for how the both the ruling and opposition parties will fare in national elections scheduled for next year.
Twelve parties are vying for the support of nearly 8 million voters in 1,646 communes across the country. The main contest will be between Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the biggest opposition group, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, which ultimately hopes to end the CPP's long run at the helm of government. Only those two main parties are contesting every seat, but smaller groups such as the royalist Funcinpec -- as well as the League for Democracy, led by the outspoken Khem Veasna -- have realistic hopes of winning seats.
Cheang Vannak, a motorcycle mechanic, voted for the CPP in the last national elections in 2013, helping the governing party to a narrow win over the CNRP in a disputed contest. But nodding toward a CNRP party logo on a motorbike parked at the entrance to his roadside garage near Phnom Krom in western Cambodia, he indicated that this time his vote would go to the opposition.
"It's time to change, we don't want the same government again and again," Cheang Vannak said, swapping wrenches while he went about repairing one of the 11 bikes stood on the floor of his busy countryside workshop - about 5 km from the shores of Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's biggest lake and a major tourist draw.
The CPP won 62% of the vote in the last commune elections held in 2012, a landslide that prompted the amalgamation of two opposition parties to form the CNRP ahead of the 2013 national elections. Now the CNRP leadership believes the party can win 60% of the vote on June 4, an outcome if repeated in 2018 would see it take power and end Hun Sen's three decades as prime minister.
But the odds seem stacked against a CNRP win, either in the upcoming commune elections or in next year's more important national parliamentary contest. In an attempt to intimidate voters in a country where four decades ago the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime orchestrated the deaths of around 2 million people, Hun Sen told a conference on May 24 that "war will happen if the CPP loses control."
The prime minister's threat echoed the words of Defense Minister Tea Banh, who 10 days earlier warned opposition leaders that "if you lose the elections and contest the results by taking to the streets to protest, we will smash your teeth," referring to CNRP protests after the disputed 2013 national elections, which saw the ruling party win 68 seats to the CNRP's 55.
The opposition has also been beset by leadership turmoil. Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister, stood down as CNRP president in February ahead of a new law that would enable courts to disband political parties if leaders were accused of crimes.
Rainsy, who in the past has been criticized for demonizing Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese minority, was already living in exile due to a possible two-year jail term for defamation, a charge he described as politically motivated, and said his resignation was to prevent the government breaking up the CNRP.
"The new political party law means that it will be even harder to hold free and fair elections in Cambodia. The last one  certainly wasn't," said Elizabeth Becker, author of When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution. referring to the 2013 national elections.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan denied that the new political party law was aimed at the CNRP. "It says that someone who is a criminal cannot be president or vice president of a party," he said.
But a strong showing for the opposition on June 4 could see the government turn the screw ahead of 2018. "These commune elections might be a test run for the national election, but so much can change between now and then as to make the 'lessons learned' irrelevant," said Lee Morgenbesser, research fellow at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy/Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.
"If the CNRP is dissolved before the next national vote, then they would have to go back to the drawing board altogether," he added.
CNRP leaders have said they will carry on regardless of whatever hurdles the Cambodian government puts in front of the party, which is now led by Kem Sokha. They have notably declined to officially complain about the threats made by Hun Sen and Tea Banh.
"The important thing is the party survives to the election in 2018," said party whip Son Chhay, who sees the June 4 vote as a test of both his party's and the government's popularity ahead of the bigger contest a year from now.
"Without him [Rainsy] it has been a bit difficult," according to Son Chhay. "But we are making our party stronger and have learned to democratize the party a bit more," he said.
A couple of kilometers north of Cheang Vannak's garage, 66-year-old Ma Ros sat by the roadside with her granddaughters, aged 10 and 12, selling fist-sized bags of lotus seeds to passers-by looking for a healthy snack while on the road.
"I must vote, it is important for the country," she said, patting her granddaughters on the head. "But I have not decided who I will vote for, I don't want to say," she added. "We want to see more work here, more opportunities," Ma Ros continued, explaining that her daughter had moved to the capital, Phnom Penh, to work and send money home, while the grandmother looks after the children.
"I can only make a little money doing this," she said, explaining that she buys lotus seeds from nearby farmers and sells the small packs here for 2000 riel ($0.50) each -- making a tiny profit.
The CNRP said it will cut ministerial budgets by 20% and in turn allocate $500,000 in development funds to each commune if it wins the 2018 national elections -- highlighting how the June 4 contest is being played as test run for next year.
Even the CPP has conceded that the proposed largesse is sharp electioneering, with defence minister Tea Banh saying it "hits the right spot" with voters -- though other parties and local economists have criticised the idea as unrealistic.
Hun Sen's CPP clearly hopes that the millions of Cambodians who have found jobs in the country's small but growing economy -- such as Ma Ros's daughter -- will stick with the ruling party.
After two decades of growth averaging 7.6% per year, the World Bank last year listed Cambodia as a "lower middle income" country, saying that the average income per head reached $1,070 in 2015. Tourist numbers to Cambodia have doubled since 2010, topping five million for the first time last year and bringing $3.2 billion to the local economy, according to the tourism ministry.
Around 700,000 Cambodians have found low-paying jobs in the country's garment and footwear factories, which have grown to be become a linchpin of the country's economy -- contributing 80% of total exports by 2015.
There have been significant health gains for the population of 16 million during the two decades since the CPP seized complete control in a bloody coup against its coalition partners in 1997.
According to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, HIV prevalence among adults has declined by nearly 60% in a decade, while malaria mortality fell from 219 deaths in 2008 to 10 in 2015,
And, according to a 2015 survey carried out by the Asia Foundation, respondents were able to identify "numerous areas in which the national government has improved the situation in the country in the last two years." Most frequently mentioned by survey respondents were education and health care, protection of human and property rights, and the economy, the report said, noting that "almost half of respondents say the government has improved education and health care."
But the CNRP contends that it has found plenty of Cambodians aggrieved at the government's policies as the party campaigns around Cambodia's 25 provinces, particularly in farming areas affected by land grabs -- in which the government is accused of allocating land to businesses without sufficient consultation with or compensation for residents.
"The local branches of the CPP have been taking orders from the top, not listening to the people," said Son Chhay, referring to "developments that force people off their land."
In recent years, several land rights activists have been jailed, while other human rights workers have been held in detention without trial.
"Many of the human rights defenders being targeted by the Cambodian authorities have been persecuted for speaking out against Cambodia's endemic corruption and rule of law issues - both of which are key to the development of an attractive and stable investment climate," said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.