The defeated opposition in Cambodia's general election has disputed the results of Sunday's poll - citing voting irregularities - despite admirable gains.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party retained power, but its 90 seats in the National Assembly were whittled down to 68. The Cambodia National Rescue Party - led by Hun Sen's long-time and bitter rival Sam Rainsy - took the remaining 55 seats, a major boost from the combined opposition total of 29 in the last parliament.
In a statement, the CNRP demanded a joint investigation - involving both parties, election officials and the UN - into what it claimed were huge irregularities.
Rainsy said: "The Cambodia National Rescue Party will not accept the election results that we have heard because there are many irregularities that occurred during the election.
“There were 1.2 million to 1.3 million people whose names were missing and could not vote. They deleted our rights to vote, how could we recognise this election?
“There were ghost names, names only on paper, over a million people that may been turned into votes.”
His 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 electors.
Their specific point of complaint is voter registration procedures, which they claim were badly flawed, possibly leaving more than 1 million people disenfranchised. The independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections said on Saturday that the ink with which voters were supposed to stain their fingers to prevent them from voting twice was not indelible as claimed.
Hun Sen's party and the government-appointed National Election Committee said the election process was fair.
The 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.
Rainsy himself was barred from candidacy or even voting, because he missed the registration deadlines. He stayed abroad for almost four years to avoid a jail term for convictions that he said were politically motivated.
He returned on July 19 after receiving a royal pardon at the behest of Hun Sen, an apparent appeasement of critics, including the US, who suggested Rainsy's exclusion was a major sign that the polls would not be free and fair.
Foreign countries such as the US 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.
Giulia Zino, a Southeast Asia analyst at Control Risks group in Singapore, told Reuters: “It's definitely unprecedented and unexpected but for now I don't think regime stability is at stake.
“I think they are going to be able to govern unilaterally without taking into consideration the opposition too much.”
The two leaders' relationship - and animosity - stretch far back in the country's bloody recent history. Hun Sen defected to Vietnam during the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. When the neighbouring country invaded to oust the radical regime, it installed him first as foreign minister and later as prime minister.
He has been in power for 28 years and says he has no intention of stepping down soon. His authoritarian rule has given him a stranglehold over the state bureaucracy that makes challenges to his authority difficult to mount.
When his party ran second in 1993, he insisted on being named co-prime minister, before ousting his partner in government four years later in a bloody coup. After election victories in later years, he showed a pattern of cracking down on critics.
Rainsy has long been the thorn in Hun Sen's side. The 64-year-old spent the Khmer Rouge years in France, reading economics and political science. As a member of a royalist party, he served as finance minister in the government elected in 1993, but was kicked out from his party and his post for his outspoken anti-corruption stand.
He founded his own party in 1995, and two years later narrowly escaped being killed in a grenade attack on a rally he was leading. The perpetrators were never brought to justice but were suspected of being linked to Hun Sen's bodyguards.
The general election was Cambodia's fifth since 1993, when the United Nations helped stage the country's first free polls since the Khmer Rouge and a subsequent period of civil war and one-party rule.