Cambodians rally ahead of polls as US warns of intimidation

Cambodian Buddhist monks join the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) rally during the first day of the country's commune

A supporter of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) raises seven fingers, a sign of the party's ballot number, during a ral

The logo of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is displayed before a rally on the first day of the country's commune elec

Supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party ride a truck through the crowds of opposition Cambodia National Rescue

Supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party ride a truck through the crowds of opposition Cambodia National Rescue

An emblem of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is displayed before the start of its first day rally for country's commu

A supporter of opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) beats a gong from a car during a rally on the first day for count

Supporters of opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather for a rally during the first day for country's commune elec

Supporters of opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather for a rally during the first day for country's commune elec

Cambodian Buddhist monks wave as they join an opposition party rally by Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) during the first day of

Opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha, center, delivers a speech during the first day campaign for

Supporters of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ride on a with party flags during the first day campaign for the country

Opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha, right, delivers a speech during the first day campaign for

Supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party sit on a truck as it drives through the crowd of an opposition Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's main opposition party believes it has momentum on its side in next month's local elections, which will gauge the support for Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of national polls next year.

The U.S. State Department called on the government to avoid threats and political intimidation as the two-week campaigning for the June 4 communal elections started Saturday with tens of thousands of supporters of Hun Sen's ruling party and the main opposition party flooding the streets of the capital.

Hun Sen has ruled for three decades, and he has warned of civil war if voters do not support his ruling Cambodian People's Party. In the last communal elections in 2012, his party received 60 percent of the vote compared to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's 30.6 percent.

But the opposition now says it has a better chance of winning after it nearly upset the ruling party in general elections in 2013, triggering its boycott of the legislature that ended with the opposition returning to parliament after it struck a deal with the longtime ruler.

A State Department spokeswoman for East Asia, Alicia Edwards, said in Washington that the U.S. was urging the Cambodian government to "guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation" and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens.

Cambodia's defense minister has reportedly warned that the army will "smash the teeth" of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party.

Speaking to supporters, opposition leader Kem Sokha said that his party would win the local and general elections but he appealed to party members to be patient.

Although accused of violence and intimidation of opponents, Hun Sen could also take some credit for bringing modest economic growth and stability in a country devastated by the communist Khmer Rouge's regime in the 1970s. Hun Sen left the movement that was responsible for the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease and executions before it was toppled in 1979.

He did not participate in the campaigning Saturday, but in a message he said that his Cambodian People's Party had received strong backing from the people in the last 38 years since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime and brought peace and political stability.