PHNOM PENH Thousands of supporters of Cambodia's main opposition party rallied on Tuesday to demand an international inquiry into the recent general election, rejecting the victory claimed by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, who shows no sign of stepping aside.
The election revealed widespread unhappiness with his iron-fisted rule, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is trying to capitalise on that while emotion still runs high, especially among younger Cambodians eager for change.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who returned from exile to galvanise the campaign of the newly merged opposition for the July 28 poll, has already said he should be prime minister and told the crowd in a Phnom Penh park he rejected the idea of a coalition.
"We won't get involved in the destruction of the nation with them," he said, addressing a demand to Hun Sen: "We just want you to step down as soon as possible."
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won 68 seats and the CNRP 55. The CNRP says it won 63 and the CPP 60. The official result will not be announced until Thursday at the earliest.
The CNRP also claimed 1.3 million names were missing from electoral rolls and that Hun Sen's side stuffed ballot boxes with illegal votes.
The allegations are being investigated by the National Election Committee, a state body seen as dominated by the CPP. Sam Rainsy wants the United Nations and non-governmental bodies to take part, which the government has rejected.
"It is inconceivable to me that Hun Sen would allow any investigation that he couldn't control," said Carl Thayer, a Cambodia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
"This election result will not be the end of Hun Sen for the next five years. But his pledge to say in office until he is in his seventies looks shaky."
Sam Rainsy told the crowd, estimated by a Reuters reporter to number at least 10,000, that the people would no longer be intimidated and he promised more, bigger demonstrations.
However, in the short term, the campaign may lose momentum as he is leaving the country for his daughter's wedding in the United States.
Hun Sen, 61, has comfortably won every election since Cambodia returned to full democracy in 1998 after decades of turmoil that included the 1975-79 "Killing Fields" rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Analysts aren't writing off the chances of the politically ruthless leader extending his 28-year rule, but even by his government's count, the election represents a dismal performance by an Asian strongman viewed until now as all but invincible.
Many Cambodians feel CPP policies have enriched a select few and created a yawning poverty gap. Huge tracts of land have been granted to foreign companies while the poor fight eviction with little hope of justice from the police or courts.
CPP policies are "out of step with a more and more open society", said independent social analyst Kem Ley, adding Hun Sen's control of the media was less effective now that many people got news from the Internet.
Kem Ley believes a CNRP boycott of parliament could lead to mass protests. "It's going to be like Egypt," he said.
Frustration also festers in the civil service, analysts say, where low-ranking officials have watched their superiors grow rich while their own wages have stagnated. The CNRP had promised pay rises for civil servants and garment workers if it won.
Hun Sen has warned that if the opposition boycotts parliament, its seats will be redistributed to other parties.
In a recent speech he scorned U.S. lawmakers for their pre-election threats to cut financial assistance unless the election was deemed fair and suggested the generosity of China, Cambodia's biggest investor and close diplomatic ally, would compensate for any cut in $1 million of U.S. military aid.
But his hailing of close ties with Beijing could backfire with many Cambodians, who resent China's economic and political dominance of their tiny country.
He will focus on retaining power rather than addressing popular discontent, analyst Kem Ley said. "There is no way (the CPP) will reform to gain popularity," he said.
But CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, who called the election result "a victory for our people", acknowledged his party must take heed of the youth.
"Their thinking is not the same as the old people like us, so we must turn to them ... and give young people what they want," he recently told journalists.
Despite a poor election result, Hun Sen will not face any leadership challenge from inside the CPP, said Lao Mong Hay, a veteran Cambodian human rights activist.
"He has centralised all power and prevented his colleagues from proving themselves and rising to prominence," he said.