PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The two rival parties claiming victory in Cambodia's general election reached an agreement Saturday with the state National Election Committee to investigate polling irregularities, a move that could pave the way to ending the country's political deadlock.
However, in the latest example of how both parties have been maneuvering for advantage since the July 28 election, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party said later in the day that it was not ready to attend a planned Sunday session to organize the investigating committee.
In an emailed statement, the CNRP repeated its desire for representatives from the United Nations and civil society to be members of the committee, rather than just observers, as the NEC said would be the case. The NEC, which is widely seen as biased in favor of the ruling Cambodian People's Party — or at least unwilling to challenge it — would also be part of the investigating body.
After meeting with senior members of the two parties earlier Saturday, NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha announced an agreement in principle to form an independent investigative body.
The ruling party contends that provisional election results show it won 68 parliamentary seats to the opposition's 55, while the opposition claims there was widespread cheating and that it won a 63-seat majority.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 28 years, has made clear that he believes the final results, due in mid-August, will favor him and that he will have another five-year term in office. With his overpowering influence over the state apparatus and the judiciary, he is almost certain to have his way.
There had been speculation that opposition lawmakers might try to block the formation of a new government by failing to take their seats in the 123-seat National Assembly and denying the body a quorum, which some interpret to mean the presence of at least 120 members.
However, Hun Sen said Friday that the constitution allows the assembly to open and appoint a new government without the opposition's participation. He said the failure of opposition lawmakers to take their seats could result in their forfeiting them to the ruling party.
"There will be no deadlock for the new National Assembly and the forming of new government. I will be the prime minister for the fifth five-year term of the government," Hun Sen told villagers in Kandal province, which borders Phnom Penh, the capital.
While the establishment of the investigative body is unlikely to have any substantive effect, it could serve as a way for the two parties to reach a face-saving accord and avoid possible chaos if Hun Sen takes office without the opposition's acquiescence.
If the body agrees that there were flaws in the election process, it could initiate reforms for which the opposition could take credit, keeping its promise of fighting a long-haul struggle for democracy.
Hun Sen, for his part, could stake a claim of being willing to compromise, giving the appearance of being reasonable rather than an intransigent autocrat. The gesture might appease foreign critics such as the United States, which strongly called for such an investigation.
The opposition has charged that more than 1 million people may have been unable to vote in the election because their names were not put on voting rolls despite having registered. There are also charges of people being registered despite being ineligible.
It had called for setting up an independent probe, but the agreement reached Saturday falls short of what it wanted, which was the inclusion of Cambodian and foreign civil society groups.
Tep Nytha, the election committee head, told reporters that the investigative body would comprise members of the two rival parties, who would work with the NEC. He said representatives from the United Nations and civil society groups would be invited as observers, not members.
Hun Sen and his government have railed against foreign involvement in the political process, with the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday issuing a statement warning foreign diplomatic missions not to interfere in the country's internal affairs.
Tep Nytha said Saturday's meeting represented progress, with both sides willing to talk and work together. He said the committee's work would give voters confidence about the election results.
The committee's preliminary tally of the popular vote showed Hun Sen's party with 3,227,729 votes and the opposition with 2,941,133. Six other parties that ran far behind shared fewer than half a million votes.