PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's opposition leader on Monday rejected the results of a contentious election won by the long-time ruling party, even though the opposition made its biggest gains in years.
The challenge by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who returned from exile last week to campaign for his Cambodia National Rescue Party, could lead to post-poll instability and even parliamentary paralysis.
Provisional results from Sunday's voting showed the opposition capturing 55 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won 68 seats, or a majority of 55 percent.
Rainsy called for an independent investigation into allegations that as many as a million people may have been deprived of their right to vote, among other irregularities.
He said the results protest was not a bargaining chip to get into government but instead a sign that his party was "interested in rendering justice to the Cambodian people to ensure that the will of the Cambodian people not be distorted or reversed."
If the opposition party boycotts the assembly — as has happened after past elections — it may be impossible for Hun Sen to legally form a government.
Rainsy did not specifically threaten a boycott, but election experts pointed out that the constitution says a quorum of 120 assembly members is needed to open a parliamentary session, raising the possibility that an opposition boycott could leave the country without a fully functioning government.
Hun Sen has not spoken publicly since the election. Mercurial in temperament, he has a record of accepting neither defeat nor victory with good grace.
The opposition's challenge could be mostly bluster. Hun Sen's ruling party has control or dominating influence over all the state bureaucracy and the courts and will almost certainly affirm the CPP victory. Past appeals have not succeeded, and it was unclear what the opposition would do if its complaints were not sustained.
Foreign countries such as the United States, which had expressed doubts before the election about its fairness, are unlikely to pursue the point with enthusiasm. They have accepted the results of past elections with much more open intimidation and violence as fair enough, and will likely regard this year's results as a major step forward.
The opposition could nonetheless cause a lot of mischief by refusing to take its seats. Hun Sen could seek to open parliament through a legal loophole, though such a move would support charges of unfairness and autocratic behavior.
He could also simply try to wait out his opponent as head of a caretaker government. The position would be awkward, but also preserve the status quo, which leaves his hands on the levers of power.
Cambodia faced a similar situation after its 2003 election, when Hun Sen's party failed to win enough seats to legally form a government on its own. The deadlock was broken only after 11 months and violence in the streets. But Hun Sen faced a divided opposition then, while his opponents this time are united.
Critics alleged that the election process was heavily rigged toward the ruling party. Rainsy's party and nonpartisan groups charged that the ruling party used the machinery of government and security forces in an unfair manner to reward or pressure voters. They also said that voter registration procedures were badly flawed, possibly leaving more than 1 million people disenfranchised.
The combined opposition had held just 29 seats in the last assembly. It was a precarious foothold — they were kicked out on highly technical grounds by their ruling party colleagues just before campaigning began.
A day ahead of the election, Rainsy said the polls would mark a new chapter in Cambodia's history, and the "beginning of people power."
"The run-up to elections has shown the emergence of a young generation, which rather than prizing stability as their elders, conceived of the elections in terms of 'change or no change,'" noted Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a Cambodia scholar from the University of Cambridge.
"The election results make it clear that these constitute a non-negligible new force in the Cambodian political landscape, and that the CPP will need to take a more conciliatory approach to the opposition, both in policy-making and in political discourse. Otherwise, there is a real possibility that a politically polarized population will raise the risk for social tension and social unrest."