Cambodian leader Hun Sen said Wednesday that his ruling party is prepared to hold talks with the main opposition party after both of them claimed victory in contentious elections, and he also agreed to launch a probe into election irregularities that have thrown the weekend polls into doubt.
Speaking to the public for the first time since his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) suffered heavy losses in the Sunday elections, Hun Sen called himself the country’s “prime minister-elect,” echoing his party’s claim that it had won the election, though with a much-reduced majority, and will form the new government.
Hun Sen said the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the ballot, had agreed to investigate complaints by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of voter list tampering.
“I have received unofficial information that the NEC will resolve the complaints with the participation of the political parties and nongovernmental organizations,” Hun Sen said while on an inspection of a bridge construction site in the capital Phnom Penh.
“If this information is true … I think this is a positive development. This is a transparent way to allow resolution of the remaining issues according to the law.”
He said that only the NEC, which the opposition has accused of lacking independence from the CPP, is responsible for investigating allegations of election irregularities.
“But if the NEC thinks that it is necessary to have the political parties and NGOs participate, the government and the CPP welcome this open method which would result in a solution that is acceptable to all parties.”
Hun Sen’s CPP claimed it won 68 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, or parliament, on election night—down from 90 in the previous election in 2008—citing its own assessment of initial results. It also acknowledged that the CNRP had nearly doubled its number of seats from 29 to 55.
The NEC has virtually endorsed the CPP findings although it has not yet announced the official results.
But the CNRP claims that it had victory snatched away due to ballot irregularities that included more than 1 million names removed from the voter lists, with a similar number of "phantom" voters added to them, along with what it called the duplication of about 200,000 names.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy claimed on Tuesday that his party had won at least 63 seats based on his party’s count at ballot stations—enough for a simple majority.
Sam Rainsy was barred from voting or running in the election by the NEC despite receiving a royal pardon for politicized criminal charges that got him an 11-year jail sentence and had kept him in self-exile in France.
The pardon came about two weeks before the July 28 election, and the NEC said it was too late for him to register as a voter and to contest in the polls. Sam Rainsy’s appeals had been rejected.
Hun Sen said Wednesday that a meeting of the CPP’s Permanent Committee had decided the party would be willing to hold talks with the opposition about the power structure of the parliament.
“The CPP has already prepared to open up and have political talks between parties that hold seats in the assembly about establishing National Assembly leaders,” he said.
But he rejected calls from the opposition earlier this week to include the United Nations in any resolution of post-election disagreements. The U.S. and EU have expressed concerns over allegations of electoral irregularities, but called on Cambodia to resolve them internally.
“This is a move that outsiders can’t resolve, and can only be done between Khmer and Khmer. Foreigners can’t resolve this,” he said.
“The foreigners have encouraged us to talk. The international observers have encouraged us to work together. People trust that the politicians will work out an agreement that will allow the new Assembly to proceed.”
Hun Sen said that he had refrained from campaigning ahead of the elections and had not publicly commented on their results until Wednesday because he had been mourning his father’s death and taking part in his funeral.
The long-ruling leader admonished those who had “sparked rumors” that he had left the country or that the military had forced him to resign because he faced a significant challenge from the opposition.
“I would like to use this opportunity to inform compatriots and monks that I am inside the country and I am holding the power as a prime minister in his fourth mandate,” he said, adding that he would remain in power despite the decline in parliamentary seats under CPP control.
“I would like to affirm that no one has the right to force the prime minister to abandon his position or take it from him, including the military, armed forces, or people of prominence. To do so is in violation of the constitution.”
The 60-year-old has held power for 28 years, making him the longest-serving head of state in Southeast Asia, and he vowed in May to continue running for office until he is 74.
He called on supporters from both the CPP and the CNRP to exercise restraint while awaiting the official results of the ballot and to avoid the post-election violence that has followed polls in the country since they were established in 1993 by the United Nations in the aftermath of the bloody Khmer Rouge era.
“Winning or losing is not important for political parties, only knowing that our nation wins,” he said.
“Don’t let the election cause a split in national unity.”
Sam Rainsy on Tuesday had warned the CPP of a “massive demonstration on a nationwide scale” if it “doesn’t respect the election results,” saying the only option to avoid protests would be for the government to establish an independent committee to investigate the election irregularities.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who is also responsible for security in Cambodia during the election process, wrote a letter to Sam Rainsy on Wednesday, cautioning him that a mass demonstration would “cause social instability.”
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by RFA’s Khmer Service, Sar Kheng said that despite a few cases of disturbances on voting day, the election was “completed in good security and an orderly environment.”
“There is no obstacle that can affect the election,” he said, adding that a number of countries had already accepted the ballot results.
“We acknowledge that any protest in connection with the election is a political right, but I would request that His Excellency [Sam Rainsy] organize the demonstration to comply with existing laws, especially the law on peaceful demonstration.”
CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha has said demonstrations against the election results would be nonviolent and that the government would be held responsible for any attempt to crack down on protesters.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.