PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's election committee on Sunday handed victory in hotly disputed polls to the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, prompting a defiant opposition to vow further protests over allegations of widespread poll fraud.
The kingdom has been stuck in political impasse since the July poll, with the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of strongman Hun Sen adamant it won a legitimate victory despite vociferous calls from opposition leader Sam Rainsy for a probe into the alleged ballot fraud.
The CPP took 68 seats to 55 for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, according to the country's National Election Committee. The election authority also confirmed that the CPP won 3.2 million votes nationally to the CNRP's 2.9 million.
It is the ruling party's worst election result since 1998, losing 22 seats since the last polls five years ago, and represents a significant inroad by the opposition.
But the NEC's announcement ends the legal avenues open to the opposition to contest the poll, despite its allegations that fraud distorted the result and a mass rally of some 20,000 supporters on Saturday calling for an independent probe.
Rainsy on Sunday moved quickly to reject the NEC's tally, insisting the loss would not blunt his party's efforts to overturn the poll, despite the official end of the appeal process.
"We do not accept results that do not reflect the real will of the people. These are the results of voter fraud," he told AFP.
"We will protest the results in different ways because the current political situation is not like in the past. We need... to find an reasonable solution," he added, without elaborating.
There was no immediate comment from the CPP. On Saturday around 20,000 demonstrators, some carrying placards and ribbons with "my vote, my life" written in Khmer, gathered in Phnom Penh in one of the largest opposition shows of popular force for years.
Rainsy, a French-educated former banker, was excluded from standing in the polls despite a recent pardon for criminal convictions that he maintains were politically motivated.
Experts have said Hun Sen has been significantly weakened by the loss of seats - and subsequent opposition protests - forcing him into rare indications of compromise during the weeks of dispute over the polls. Moreover, the results - which saw the CPP's 90 seats in 2008 elections reduced - may have carved a space for genuine two-party politics to develop in the kingdom.
Hun Sen, 61, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected and oversaw Cambodia's rise from the ashes of war, has vowed to rule until he is 74. His government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent.
He defected from the Khmer Rouge, and oversaw Cambodia's transformation from a nation devastated by the regime's "Killing Fields" genocide era in the late 1970s to become one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant economies.
For decades, Hun Sen's simple message - that he and his party liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and ushered in decades of peaceful development - has been enough to guarantee support.