Cambodia's opposition yesterday rejected the results of closely fought weekend elections and called for an investigation into "serious irregularities", saying it was robbed of a victory over hardline premier Hun Sen.
Boosted by the return from exile of its leader Sam Rainsy, the newly united opposition made significant gains in Sunday's polls, which independent monitors also criticised as flawed.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) announced late on Sunday it had taken an estimated 68 out of the 123 seats in the lower house, against an increased 55 for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The 60-year-old premier - who has been in power for 28 years - is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and muzzling political freedoms.
The CPP had 90 seats in the previous parliament, so if confirmed the result would mark the loss of 22 seats, despite the exclusion of Rainsy who was barred from running.
The CNRP called for an urgent UN-backed investigation into allegations ranging from the removal of 1.25 million names from the voter lists to the addition of more than one million "ghost names" and about 200,000 duplicated names.
Rainsy said: "We don't accept the election results ... There are too many irregularities with far reaching implications.
"We're not seeking to bargain with the government. What we want is to render justice to the Cambodian people so their will is not distorted or reversed as before." The CNRP said that overall, the ruling party won by only 200,000 votes. Without the alleged irregularities, the opposition would have come out on top.
Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha said: "If we investigate just a few cases of irregularities such as duplicated names, the CNRP will receive more votes than the CPP."
Dozens of supporters gathered at the opposition headquarters to protest. Other concerns cited by rights groups included that the ink used to mark voters' thumbs to ensure they did not vote more than once could be easily washed off.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "What you had is really an unprecedented level of machinations and malfeasance in the electoral process in Cambodia. The National Election Committee frankly should be ashamed of itself."
The poll body denied there were any irregularities, while CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the party would "follow the NEC's decision". When asked about a possible power sharing deal with the opposition, he said it was "too soon to comment".
Even before polls opened, the opposition had said a Hun Sen win would be "worthless" without Rainsy's participation.
The French-educated former banker returned to Cambodia on July 19 from self-imposed exile after receiving a royal pardon for criminal convictions he contends were politically motivated.
But he was barred from running as a candidate with the authorities saying it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected from the murderous regime, has vowed to rule until he is 74.
He oversaw Cambodia's transformation from a nation devastated by their "Killing Fields" genocidal era in the late 1970s to one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant economies.
For decades, his simple message - that he and his party liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and ushered in decades of peaceful development - has been enough to guarantee support.
Hun Sen's confidence in his formidable party machine was so complete he took the unusual tactic of not personally campaigning for his re-election.