PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s election committee handed victory in hotly disputed polls to the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen Sunday, prompting the opposition to pledge further protests over allegations of widespread fraud.
The kingdom has been stuck in a political impasse since the July election, with the premier’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) insisting it secured a legitimate victory despite vociferous calls from CNRP leader Sam Rainsy for a probe into alleged vote rigging.
The CPP took 68 seats to 55 for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), according to the country’s National Election Committee.
The election authority said the CPP won 3.2 million votes to the CNRP’s 2.9 million.
It is the ruling party’s worst election result since 1998, losing 22 seats since the last polls five years ago.
Analysts say it delivers a significant blow to the CPP and Hun Sen, who has led the country for nearly three decades.
A rare mass rally in the capital on Saturday called for an independent probe into results but the NEC’s announcement ends the legal avenues open to the opposition to contest the poll.
Rainsy, a French-educated former banker, on Sunday moved quickly to reject the NEC’s tally, insisting the loss would not blunt his party’s efforts to overturn the poll.
“We do not accept results that do not reflect the real will of the people. These are the results of voter fraud,” he told AFP.
“We will protest the results in different ways because the current political situation is not like in the past,” he added, without elaborating.
The CPP hailed the announcement as an end to the political crisis that has gripped the country, saying it will convene parliament with royal assent irrespective of the CNRP’s next moves.
However, chastened party officials offered an apparent olive branch to the opposition saying the government was ready to cooperate with them in a new National Assembly and will address voter discontent over corruption and nepotism in the impoverished kingdom.
“We got the message from the people and will act accordingly,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP.
Experts say the NEC’s announcement does not extinguish the nation’s political turmoil as the CPP and election authorities have failed to dispel fears of poll fraud or appease a public increasingly unhappy with rule by narrow interests.
The results are a “big blow for Hun Sun” and leave the CPP “badly shaken”, according to Cambodian independent analyst Lao Mong Hay.
“We now have a confrontation between those in power and the rest of the population.
“The people have shown their displeasure with the rulers… and their misuse and abuse of power for their own interest — for the interest of their party, their clans, their families,” he added.
Moreover, the results may have carved a space for genuine two-party politics to develop in the kingdom.
Hun Sen, 61, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia’s rise from the ashes of war, has vowed to rule until he is 74.
One of his three sons — Hun Many — was elected to parliament in July’s poll stoking speculation that he is being groomed as an eventual successor.
Since his defection from the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has drawn popularity for overseeing Cambodia’s transformation from a nation devastated by the regime’s “Killing Fields” genocide era in the late 1970s to become one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies.
But his government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.