Cambodia's main opposition party has rejected the results of a parliamentary election and has called for an investigation into allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party [CPP] claimed a narrow victory in Sunday's vote, admitting to its weakest showing since taking a dominant role in Cambodian politics almost three decades ago.
Shortly after the polls closed, the CPP said it won 68 seats in the nation's 123-member parliament - a significant decline from the 90-seat majority it previously held. It said the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party [CNRP] took the remaining 55 seats, almost doubling the 29 seats it held in the outgoing parliament.
The CPP appeared to base its claims on partial results released by the National Election Committee, which was not expected to disclose final election figures for several weeks.
Charges of widespread fraud
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy told reporters Monday the CNRP would not accept the results of the ballot because of what he characterized as widespread fraud.
"We ask local and international bodies to send experts now to be part of a joint committee to investigate all the irregularities, and to assess the implications of those irregularities on the election results," said Rainsy.
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told VOA the opposition's announcement was typical of its election behavior. "The opposition party uses this game after every election," he said.
"There were serious fraud allegations leading up to the elections," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch [HRW]
, who was in Cambodia observing the election campaign. "They included illegal behavior on behalf of government security authorities; things like 'ghost' voters, de-registration of opposition voters, biased behavior by the national election commission, unequal access to national media, the list goes on and on. It is a serious problem and it does deserve an independent investigation."
'Litany of breaches'
The non-profit Transparency International Cambodia echoed those concerns. The group, which sent 900 observers to about 400 of the nation's 19,000 polling stations, says it found a litany of breaches.
Chief among those was that in 60 percent of polling stations, some people who had the right identification papers could not find their names on the voting list. It also found that people who lacked the correct identification were allowed to vote in a quarter of the polling stations.
Transparency International said its findings closely matched the pre-election findings of other monitors.
The Cambodian government has not yet commented on the substance of the alleged irregularities.
Rainsy said his concern is for the will of the people.
"What we are interested in is to render justice to the Cambodian people. To ensure that the will of the people will not be distorted or reversed as before," he said.
Bringing about change
David Chandler, a Cambodia analyst with Australia's Monash University, said a major political change is unlikely.
"The opposition does not have access to funds, weapons or patronage. So the financial power will continue to be in the hands of the CPP. Foreign aid will flow to the government, which is controlled by the CPP," he said. "I think politics will become more interesting and vibrant, but I do not think that will involve the transfer of power to any extent."
The CNRP appeared to get a boost in the election from the merger of two of its founding parties, who joined forces last year to challenge the long-ruling CPP. The united opposition party touted a populist platform calling for a sharp rise in civil servants' salaries, monthly payments to those over 65 years old, and an increase in the minimum wage. It also pledged to regulate government prices for agricultural products, lower gas costs and provide free health care for the poor.
Robertson of HRW said the promise of change made many voters more enthusiastic about participating in the election.
"It really propelled the opposition to make major gains. But, we should not confuse outcomes with processes and procedures," he said. "The processes and procedures of the election were not fair and favored one side. They were designed to deny the civil and political rights of the Cambodian people."
Critics questioned whether the opposition would be able to pay for its proposed measures.
Hun Sen has been prime minister or co-prime minister of Cambodia for 28 years, first assuming office in 1985.
Daniel Schearf and Heng Reaksmey contributed to this report from Phnom Penh,
Victor Beattie contributed from Washington.