PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's newly pardoned opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned from exile to a rapturous welcome in Phnom Penh on Friday, reinvigorating an election campaign that strongman prime minister Hun Sen was set to win in a landslide.
"I missed you all...let's go forward together," Mr Rainsy, 64, said as his ecstatic supporters pushed to greet him at the gates of the city's airport.
Tens of thousands of supporters waving party flags lined the road for kilometres from the airport in a strong show of support for the French-educated former banker who fled the country almost four years ago to escape criminal charges he says were politically motivated.
"This is a special day for Cambodia...we need Sam Rainsy to take the fight to Hun Sen," said supporter Path Phalla, 42.
Nine days before nine million Cambodians go to the polls Mr Rainsy began campaigning immediately, speaking at a rally in the city and preparing to leave for a tour of 15 provinces opposition parties believe they can win at the election.
Mr Hun Sen requested the pardon which was granted last week by King Norodom Sihamoni after United States lawmakers threatened to cut more than US$70 million in annual US aid if the elections were unfair.
The US State Department had also warned that Mr Rainsy's exclusion from the election would call into question the legitimacy of Cambodia's democratic process.
But senior government officials in Phnom Penh denied the decision was due to international pressure, saying it was Mr Hun Sen's commitment towards national unification and fair and democratic elections.
Throughout his almost 28 year rule of the country the wily 61 year-old Mr Hen Sen has often brutally crushed his political opponents but made conciliatory gestures towards them at the last minute.
Mr Rainsy had declared he was returning from exile to campaign for his party before the election even if he was to be arrested and jailed, setting the stage for a showdown with Mr Hun Sen, the man he accuses of masterminding a 1997 grenade attack at an opposition rally in Phnom Penh.
During his three decade-long political career Mr Rainsy has survived assassination attempts, criminal convictions and defamation lawsuits.
But the former finance minister who was expelled from the royalist Funcinpec party in 1995 for not toeing the party line has his share of critics who accuse him of being autocratic and fuelling distrust of neighbouring Vietnam to boost his political support.
Rainsy's exclusion from the election would call into question the legitimacy of Cambodia's democratic process
In 2009 he helped villages uproot posts demarcating the border between the two countries and accused Mr Hun Sen's government of allowing Vietnam to encroach on Cambodia's land.
The stunt outraged authorities in Vietnam, which invaded the country in 1978, but was applauded by his supporters and many Cambodians who fear Vietnamese encroachment.
Mr Rainsy, who is often sharp-tongued in his rhetoric, spent his teenage years in France and made a career in the financial world before returning to Cambodia as it struggled to recover from the devastation of the Khmer Rouge's genocidal rule in the late 1970s.
He fled Cambodia for exile in France in late 2009 shortly before he was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for moving Vietnamese border markers, seven years for spreading false information about the border with Vietnam and two years for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong by associating him with the Khmer Rouge.
Since then his Sam Rainsy Party has merged with the Human Rights Party to forge the Cambodian National Rescue Party that holds a combined 29 seas in the 123-seat national parliament.
While Mr Rainsy will be free to campaign it seems unlikely last minute efforts by his lawyers to allow him to contest a seat will succeed.
The deadline for registration of candidates has closed and Mr Rainsy's name was removed from the electoral register before he received his pardon.
Analysts say Mr Rainsy's party is likely to win more seats in parliament, perhaps enough to remove Mr Hun Sen's two-thirds majority that enables his party to change the constitution.
Many of the Cambodia's younger voters are disenchanted by land grabbing, corruption and a culture of impunity for the politically well connected.
In a country which has more mobile telephones than people, social media has emerged to be influential in politics, particularly because the media is controlled by the government.
But Mr Hun Sen's hold on power appears unassailable.
He won the last two elections by a landslide amid allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
In May Mr Hun Sen, one of the Asia's long-serving leaders, said he intended staying in power for another decade until he is 74. Since taking power in January 1985, the one-time Khmer Rouge cadre has been allowed to consolidate his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) rule so that he controls almost all levers of power including the police, military, courts and bureaucracy. Independent political analyst Chea Vannath said while voters, especially those from poor rural areas, may admire Mr Rainsy they find it hard to identify with him given his background.
"Rainsy had better opportunities to pursue his education while Hun Sen stopped studying to join the liberation movement in the 1970s," she said.