Updated at 3:00 p.m. ET on 2013-7-28
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's dominant party suffered a major blow in national elections Sunday, claiming only a narrow margin of victory against the main opposition party galvanized by the return from self-exile of its leader Sam Rainsy.
The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won only 68 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, the country's parliament, in a much reduced majority than achieved in the 2008 election, according to Khieu Kanharith, Minister of Information and party spokesman, citing initial unofficial results.
The CPP had held 90 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly before the elections, one of the closest fought in recent years and marred by allegations of widespread irregularities.
Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had 29 seats previously, nearly doubled its haul to 55 seats in this election, Khieu Kanharith said on his Facebook page, quoting what he called "first unofficial results."
He confirmed with RFA's Khmer Service his Facebook post, saying it was too soon to say whether the CPP would forge another coalition government with its ally Funcinpec party, which has two seats in the current assembly.
"We will see if they [the CNRP] accept the election results or not because so far they said they wouldn't accept the results," Khieu Kanharith said.
The National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the elections, has not announced any official result for the assembly seats.
CNRP to wait and see
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith refused to accept or reject the CPP-announced result, saying the party would wait for the official NEC tally.
Full NEC results could take days or even weeks after the polls, Cambodia's fifth since 1993, when the United Nations helped stage the country's first free elections since the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge and a subsequent period of civil war and one-party rule.
The 60-year-old Hun Sen, in power for 28 years, has faced persistent accusations of trampling on human rights and silencing political dissent. He did not even bother to campaign in the elections, appearing confident his party will coast to victory.
In a province-by-province vote breakdown, the CNRP was ahead in several key CPP strongholds, including one of Hun Sen's homegrounds Kompong Cham where it received 137,994 votes to the ruling party's 102,486 votes. The CPP's popularity also dipped in provinces such as Kandal and Poey Veng.
In Phnom Penh, the CNRP garnered 381,620 votes to CPP's 250,974 votes, according to the NEC.
Amid the anxiety ahead of the official results, Sam Rainsy appealed for calm.
"We wish to thank all Cambodians irrespective of political affiliation for their effective participation in this election, for their contribution to make democracy flourish," he told a news conference in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
He also appealed to his mostly young supporters not to cause any trouble: "We call for peace and reconciliation."
About 9.6 million people were registered to vote—more than one-third of whom are aged under 30 and who did not witness the atrocities during the notorious Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979, or Hun Sen’s role in ending it.
Sam Rainsy's application to vote and contest in the election was rejected despite a royal pardon for prison convictions widely believed to be politically motivated,
He had charged of poll irregularities and early Sunday toured polling stations to "collect more evidence" of potential voting fraud.
The CNRP, formed by the merger of two main opposition parties, had received a boost after Sam Rainsy was allowed to return home, about two weeks ago, after the royal pardon.
Local poll monitor the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) alleged that up to 1.25 million people who were eligible to cast ballots were not on voter lists and expressed concern that the ink used to mark voters could be easily washed off.
The NEC, which has been accused by rights groups of being a tool of the CPP, had told election observers and political party representatives that they would not be allowed to verify the official voter list at the polling station, Comfrel said on Saturday ahead of the vote.
There was at least one violent protest, at a polling station in Phnom Penh where a crowd destroyed two police cars, military police spokesman Kheng Tito was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying, as anger erupted over names missing from the voter list.
Security was tightened after polling ended with military police blocking off a road leading to Hun Sen's home and one going to the CPP and NEC offices, according to Reuters.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.