PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Friday he would press ahead with forming a new government even if the main opposition party tried to block the process, after both sides claimed victory in last Sunday's general election.
Hun Sen's government says he was re-elected, with his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) winning 68 seats and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) getting 55.
For its part, the CNRP says it won 63 seats and the CPP got 60. At the same time it has alleged electoral fraud, saying up to 1.3 million names were missing from the electoral rolls and that the ruling party stuffed ballot boxes will illegal votes.
The National Election Committee has not yet given official results and may not do so until mid-August.
"We don't need to depend on or beg another political party to attend a meeting. If somebody won't attend a (parliamentary) meeting, it's their right, but we only need 63 people to approve a law and appoint a government," Hun Sen said while on a visit to speak to farmers in Kandal province near the capital.
That is a reading of the constitution rejected by some.
A quorum of 120 out of 123 lawmakers was needed to launch a new national assembly before the approval of a new cabinet, said attorney Sok Sam Oeun, executive director at Cambodia Defenders Project, an organisation that offers free legal aid.
Hun Sen maintains that a 2006 amendment would allow his ruling CPP, given the number of seats it says it won, to start the process alone without the CNRP.
Sok Sam Oeun disputed that, saying the amendment does indeed allow the approval of a new government with only 63 lawmakers present but, before that stage, at least 120 had to approve the start of a new parliament.
CHINA WILL PROVIDE
Hun Sen, who has ruled with an iron fist for 28 years and can be blunt about his critics at home and abroad, slammed US lawmakers for starting a process that could lead to a cut in aid to Cambodia of about $50 million a year unless the election is seen to be free and fair.
Before the election, US lawmakers had threatened to cut financial assistance unless the election was deemed fair.
"This won't affect the government. The ones who would be affected first are those who work for you," Hun Sen said, referring to US-funded projects. "Don't talk so much. If you want to cut, just cut it."
He added that if $1 million of US military aid was also cut, that wouldn't be a problem, either.
"Last time they cut our aid, they were going to give us 100 old trucks. The Chinese saw this and gave us 257 trucks," he said to applause from his officials.
Cambodia is a close diplomatic ally of China, providing backing in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, for example, and being rewarded with investment and aid money.
The United States and European Union have expressed concern about irregularities in Sunday's election but both have said an investigation should be conducted by Cambodian electoral authorities, failing to endorse the opposition's call for an inquiry involving the United Nations.
Hun Sen was uncharacteristically quiet for two days after the election before saying on Wednesday he was ready to talk to the opposition, although he still maintained he was prime minister-elect.
The election campaign and voting on Sunday were largely peaceful but Hun Sen, 60, has crushed dissent in the past and Phnom Penh remains tense because of the political stand-off.
Even by the government's own figures, Sunday's vote was his 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.
This time, he faced a united opposition after the merger of two parties to form the CNRP last year. Its campaign was given impetus by the return from exile in July of long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy after a royal pardon removed the threat of a jail term hanging over his head.