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Cambodian Election Controversy

Despite charges of widespread fraud, Hun Sen's ruling party Tuesday claimed a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, setting the stage for more turmoil in this already troubled country.

Official results from Sunday's balloting had not been announced yet. After two days of vote counting, the National Election Committee had only released partial tallies for two of Cambodia's 21 provinces.

The delay in announcing further results boosted allegations of vote tampering; the election committee is dominated by Hun Sen loyalists.

The two main opposition leaders, former co-Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, acknowledged Tuesday that they believed the official tally would mirror figures issued by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, but Rainsy still insisted the CPP had stolen the election.

The partial tallies showed the ruling party taking 67 of the 122 National Assembly seats, a commanding majority in what had looked like a tight three-way race. According to the figures, Ranariddh's royalist FUNCINPEC took 42 seats and the Sam Rainsy Party just 13.

"They stole our vote, and we will disagree with whatever their result," Sam Rainsy told a crowd of opposition supporters. "Had there not been any fraud, we would be in the majority."

But Ranariddh said FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy's party had split the opposition vote, allowing the governing party to prevail.

"We should learn a bitter lesson from the present situation, which is that the division of the democrats allowed the CPP to win in several places," Ranariddh told reporters outside his home today.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, attending the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila, Philippines, voiced skepticism Tuesday over Hun Sen's claims, saying "any declarations of victory are premature."

"The only thing we know for a fact is that the Cambodian people voted in large numbers as they did in the previous election," she said.

The election committee stressed that official results were not in and that premature claims by parties could "undermine public order."

"Any results suggesting that this party wins or this party loses will affect the minds of voters," spokesman Samraing Kimsan said.

The prince and Sam Rainsy, while only occasional allies, said they would boycott the National Assembly, denying Hun Sen's ruling CPP the two-thirds attendance needed to hold meetings.

A ruling party official shrugged off the boycott threat.

"If they don't, the current government will go until probably 2003, but I think they should uphold national interests and join a coalition government," said Svay Sitha, a CPP steering committee member.

The dispute raised the prospect of more turmoil in a country that has suffered unremitting strife in the past 30 years, from civil war and genocide to last year's coup, when un Sen deposed Ranariddh as co-prime minister in two days of fighting in the capital.

The power-sharing arrangement between the two had emerged from U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993, which were meant to usher in a new era of peace and democracy.

Ranariddh won, but Hun Sen, who came to power in 1985 under the harsh Vietnamese occupation that followed the Khmer Rouge's bloody rule from 1975-1979, forced his way into a coalition by threatening war.

Ranariddh and Hun Sen both have said they would reject another co-premiership, calling it a recipe for disaster.

Hun Sen called Sunday's elections in a bid to win back international aid and legitimacy, but allegedly has used violence, including killings, against opposition activists and intimidation of voters to ensure his victory.

Foreign observer groups acknowledged the pre-election violence but said that relatively peaceful voting and initially smooth counting Monday signaled an election fair enough to reflect the will of Cambodians.

But most issued their endorsements before election returns began trickling in.

"We have followed our own schedule," said Sven Linder, spokesman for the group coordinating 678 observers from 40 countries. "I am confident we are not premature."

The opposition complained of counting irregularities and demanded an investigation, claiming that only seven seats should separate the top two parties.

Sam Rainsy said that together, his party and FUNCINPEC should have been able to form a majority with the prince as prime minister.

"We will not recognize the result of the election," Ranariddh said. "Yesterday, in the morning, until about 11 or 12 o'clock, FUNCINPEC was leading everywhere. We were clearly leading. But in the afternoon, the situation was reversed."

Written by Robin McDowell