Cambodia's opposition party escalated its challenge to the country's election results Wednesday, claiming it had actually won a majority of National Assembly seats. The action suggests that the opposition is digging in for a protracted battle over the results against the long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hun Sen meanwhile made his first public appearance since Sunday's election, speaking briefly at the opening of a flyover bridge in the capital. He struck a conciliatory tone, saying that he would send two of his close party colleagues to hold talks with the opposition leaders. He did not otherwise commit to any course of action.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that based on reports from party workers and election observers, his party had won at least 63 of the assembly's 123 seats. Party leader Sam Rainsy made a similar claim late Tuesday to a small group of reporters.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party earlier claimed it had won 68 seats to the opposition's 55 in the election. Provisional official results support the ruling party's projection.
The opposition has already called for an investigation of voting irregularities, including registration problems that could have disenfranchised more than a million people. There have also been accounts of people voting who were not entitled to.
Hun Sen said Wednesday that he would support establishing such a body if the state National Election Committee approved it. The government-appointed body, criticized for failing to address registration problems before the election, has not appeared inclined to endorse such an action.
Hun Sen said he did not wish the people to be upset by the conduct of the election. His appearance came after rumors had circulated earlier that he had resigned or fled the country.
The opposition's complaints have been supported by a number of nonpartisan Cambodian and foreign groups.
The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch charged Wednesday that the ruling party "appears to have been involved in electoral fraud in Cambodia's July 28, 2013 national elections, according to residents and ruling party officials" it interviewed.
"Senior ruling party officials appear to have been involved in issuing fake election documents and fraudulently registering voters in multiple provinces," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in a statement. "And people from the party seem to have been turning up in places where they clearly don't live and insisting on voting — not to mention the many other claims of fraud around the country."
While Rainsy's party has not threatened any specific action if it does not get its way, it could choose not to attend parliament, which would deprive the body of a quorum and prevent the formation of a new .
Hun Sen's party, with the aid of a pliant judiciary, might find a legal loophole to get around the move, or could just continue ruling as a caretaker , but would find its legitimacy under constant question at home and abroad.
The latest opposition claim is evidently part of a strategy to keep the pressure on the , especially while there is still some foreign interest in the election. While the European Union issued a lukewarm statement of concern and call for calm, the United States said it was "concerned by numerous reported irregularities in the electoral process."
"We call for a transparent and full investigation of all credible reports of irregularities," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday in Washington.
The opposition party has asked voters who were denied their ballots to come offer their testimony at the party headquarters in Phnom Penh. About 500 turned up Wednesday morning.
Rainsy told the crowd that their collected complaints would be presented to the National Election Committee and other interested bodies.
"It is a tremendous moment in our history that despite the large-scale theft of votes, our party still won the election," he told the crowd, which chanted "Long live the CNRP."
"I appeal to all of you to help us protect the victory," he said. "The victory that was announced by the other party was totally wrong. We are the real winner." His supporters chanted, "Change, change!" a familiar rallying cry from the campaign.
An 88-year-old woman in the crowd, Meach Ouk, said she came because she wanted to vote, but was not allowed to do so Sunday.
"I was disappointed that my name was gone from the voting list. Why can't I vote?" she said. "I wanted to vote because I want my grandchildren to live with prosperity and a bright future."
Hun Sen's ruling party has so far offered a weak defense of the polls, with the government-appointed National Election Committee saying that they proceeded smoothly but that official final results will be released in mid-August. It has released statements from sympathetic election observers, such as a delegation from the Communist Party of China, affirming that they observed no election day misbehavior.