PHNOM PENH Cambodia's long-serving leader, Hun Sen, said on Wednesday his party was ready to talk to the opposition after both sides claimed victory in Sunday's general election, talking of the need for compromise but calling himself "prime minister elect".
"We open our heart to compromise in order to create a parliamentary leadership," Hun Sen said while on an inspection of a bridge construction site, his first public appearance since the election and his first comments on the deadlock.
"We have to respect the people's decision and if we don't, and turn to violence ... that would lead to chaos in the whole country and this is not what people want to see," he said.
The election campaign and voting on Sunday were largely peaceful but Phnom Penh remains tense because of the political stand-off. Police and the military are maintaining a presence on the streets, although business is mostly back to normal.
Hun Sen, 60, has been prime minister for 28 years and has crushed dissent in the past while maintaining tight control through his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and a network of business, government and military allies.
Earlier on Wednesday, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said it had won the general election, stepping up its battle with Hun Sen's CPP, which has also claimed victory and rejected accusations of electoral fraud.
Yim Sovann, a lawmaker and spokesman for the CNRP, said it had won 63 seats in the 123-member parliament, with the CPP getting 60.
"This is according to figures of votes we collected from various provinces and this needs to be investigated," he told Reuters.
The government announced on Sunday that the CPP had won 68 seats, a sharp fall from its previous tally of 90 but beating what it said was the CNRP's 55.
The National Election Committee (NEC) has yet to release official results and says it does not expect to do until mid-August.
RETURN FROM EXILE
The CNRP was formed last year from the merger of two opposition parties. Long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned from exile on July 19 to galvanise its campaign after a royal pardon that removed the threat of jail for what he called trumped-up charges relating to criticism of a new border the government agreed with Vietnam.
That pardon was recommended by Hun Sen, apparently under pressure from aid donors demanding a free and fair election, analysts said.
Sam Rainsy has demanded an inquiry into the election with U.N. involvement, alleging in particular that up to 1.3 million names were missing from the electoral rolls. The government has rejected that.
The United States and European Union have expressed concern about irregularities but both have said an investigation should be conducted by the NEC.
Hun Sen said his party was ready to talk to the NEC and the opposition about the alleged irregularities. However, the Foreign Affairs Ministry told foreign countries not to meddle.
"The spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation would like to urge foreign diplomatic missions not to play a role to support the opposition party," the ministry said in a statement.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on Wednesday for an independent investigation, saying senior CPP officials appeared to have issued fake voting documents to supporters and had allowed some people to vote in more than one place.
"The multiple voting scheme suggests the possibility of systematic election fraud by the CPP and raises serious questions about the credibility of the election," Brad Adams, its director for Asia, said in a statement.
"Since the National Election Committee and local election commissions are under the ruling party's control, influential governments and donors should demand independent investigations into these and other credible allegations of election-related irregularities," he said.
Even by the government's own figures, Sunday's vote was Hun Sen's worst election result since Cambodia returned to full democracy in 1998 after decades of war and turmoil that included the 1975-79 "Killing Fields" rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Prolonged wrangling over the result and a weakened Hun Sen could raise uncertainty over policy in the small but fast-growing Southeast Asian country that has built up a thriving garment sector and forged economic ties with China and Vietnam.