AT A wedding in the southern province of Kandal, the resignation of Sam Rainsy, the country’s longtime opposition leader, is announced in passing by a teenager scrolling through Facebook. The apparent departure of a figure who has been central to Cambodian politics for 20 years created a kerfuffle among Cambodia-watchers when it emerged this week. The wedding guests simply shrug.

The apathy reflects the disconnect between Mr Sam Rainsy, who describes himself as the “national and international symbol of resistance” to Cambodia’s authoritarian government, and the country from which he has been absent since 2015 in order to avoid arrest on various charges. As local elections approach in June, with parliamentary elections looming a year on, this cosmopolitan former banker campaigning from Paris was always going to struggle to energise the provinces.

Cambodia’s strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, had threatened a week earlier to teach Mr Sam Rainsy “a lesson”. The courts had already convicted him in several dubious cases. Next the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) drafted a law that would allow the authorities to dissolve any party led by someone convicted of a crime. Mr Sam Rainsy said he was stepping down to avoid the dissolution of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only credible opposition.

But the CPP is pressing on with its plans to amend the election law, adding a vague clause that would allow the closure of parties that foment “disunity” and a rule banning donations from abroad, among other things. Both measures are aimed at the CNRP, which is fiercely critical of the government and gets most of its funding from Cambodian expatriates.

The hounding of the opposition is relentless. Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s acting leader, has also been repeatedly dragged into court. Pro-CPP websites, meanwhile, have leaked recordings of senior CNRP members’ phone calls, fuelling suspicions of state-backed wiretapping. All critics of the government are frightened after the murder last summer of Kem Ley, a political commentator; Mr Hun Sen fuels the fire by calling on them by name to watch out.

But even by the grim standards of Mr Hun Sen’s 32-year rule, his latest efforts to dismantle the opposition mark a lurch towards autocracy. The CNRP won 55 out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly in the most recent parliamentary election, in 2013. Its strength seems to stem not from the charisma of its leaders but from a general discontent with the status quo. Even with Mr Sam Rainsy out of the picture, in other words, Mr Hun Sen will keep tormenting the opposition.