PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - Cambodia's two main opposition parties have formalized their merger by winning approval for self-exiled politician Sam Rainsy to be leader of the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Spokesman Pol Ham said Tuesday that his new party was formed after the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party agreed in July to join forces.
He said the Interior Minister Sar Kheng signed the official endorsement Friday recognizing Sam Rainsy as the new party's president.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia with an iron grip for decades, and the opposition faces handicaps in mounting a challenge in next year's general election. Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party holds 90 of the 123 parliamentary seats, while the Sam Rainsy Party holds 26 and Human Rights Party three.
Sam Rainsy lives in self-imposed exile in Paris to avoid prison from convictions that critics say represented political persecution. He and Hun Sen are bitter political enemies, with Sam Rainsy the only national figure with the political skills and organization to pose a credible challenge to the prime minister.
Speaking to the new party's members through a video link from Paris, Sam Rainsy said Tuesday that he expects to return to Cambodia before next year's polls. He asserted there would be a political compromise resolving his case that would allow him to return without conditions.
"In short, I can assure you that I will come back to Cambodia to lead this country," Sam Rainsy said.
However, government spokesman Keo Ramy said Tuesday that if Sam Rainsy comes back, he will be arrested and sent to prison. The opposition figure was convicted in 2010 of spreading false information and destruction to property for moving border markers near the frontier with Vietnam, accusing the Hun Sen government of not defending the border against Vietnamese incursions. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"He has to be responsible before the law," Keo Ramy said.
In 2005-2006, Sam Rainsy was in a similar predicament, having been convicted in absentia of defamation and sentenced to 18 months in jail. That situation was resolved when King Norodom Sihamoni granted him a pardon at Hun Sen's request.
The opposition parties have recently suggested they may boycott next year's election unless the members of the National Election Committee step down. They charge that the committee members unfairly favor Hun Sen's party.
Hun Sen has dismissed the threat as reflecting the opposition's frustration at failure in past polls, and said a boycott will simply benefit other parties.
Next July's polls will be the fifth parliamentary election since the United Nations brokered a peace deal for the country in 1991, a process meant to end decades of bloodshed that included the 1975-79 "killing fields" rule of the communist Khmer Rouge.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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