Cambodia Calm - On the Surface

Cambodia's prime minister and strongman Hun Sen, who emerged visibly shaken from a disputed election victory last Sunday that also looked rather like a rebuff, appears to have begun to find his own feet by the end of this week.

The election result was his worst political showing in 15 years, with his party even losing ground in Kompong Cham, the PM's own native province. Although Cambodia seems to have gone quiet since the July 28 election, in fact there is political paralysis. Hun Sen, more of his old bullying self, has threatened to "give away" the National Rescue Party's 55 seats if the opposition refuses to take their seats in the National Assembly.

The atmosphere remains tense. Because of the precedents of the last three decades, fearing violence, numbers of well-off Cambodians left for Europe, mainly France, while the vast majority took refuge in their native villages, or were hunkered down In their often cramped homes in the capital, awaiting developments.

Both parties, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the former communist party, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy's Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a coalition group formed a year ago, claimed victory. However, neither scheduled celebratory rallies for fear of the violence that mar such triumphalist demonstrations.

Things could all have been much worse for the CNRP, given Hun Sen's strong-arm control of the police, his bloated armed forces and the apparatus of state. Its 55 seats to the CPP's 68, down from 90 in the last election five years ago, were so unexpected they looked like a psychological victory.

Sam Rainsy, a French-educated banker home from four years' exile after receiving a royal pardon on July 12 for "crimes" he said he had never committed, built up a moral force behind him because of the tens of thousands of young people aged between 18 and 30 who had campaigned fearlessly in Phnom Penh in the leadup to the election, taking over the streets with motorcycle rallies.

Beside them, the CPP looked like a gerontocracy, with top leaders of the ruling elite, aside from the 61 year old Hun Sen, looking old and, in some cases, ill. Younger supporters, many of whom had received perks to participate, appeared far from being at ease and not in a winning mood.

When he made his homecoming on July 19, just 9 days before the election, Sam Rainsy had been greeted by an estimated 100,000 mainly young supporters at the airport, a massive crowd waving the rising sun standard of the Rescue party. The outpouring stunned the CPP -- and even the Rescue party itself.

By Thursday, Hun Sen, whose government has been criticized for rampant corruption, cronyism, and land-grabbing of massive concessions then granted to favored Chinese, Vietnamese and South Korean companies, had promised to continue to rule even if opposition MPs refused to take their seats in parliament.

He warned in talks with foreign envoys that if National Assembly opposition seats remained unused he would grant them to candidates from other parties, like the once powerful royal party FUNCINPEC, unceremoniously wiped out at the hustings. Hun Sen claimed that the constitution gave him the right to do so.

The National Election Commission (NEC), the government-appointed body with close ties to Hun Sen, said it had no authority to establish a joint-party investigation into allegations of vote fraud, which Sam Rainsy had requested.

Critics of the NEC, which won't release the final results until September 8, have charged it with being overloaded with CPP supporters.

Sam Rainsy said he would now seek an investigation outside the NEC, which is under fire for its handling of the election where many opposition voters found - as this correspondent witnessed - that their names were not on the electoral rolls, and who were turned away at polling booths, while others seemingly over eager to vote appeared with doubtful-looking temporary ID papers issued by CPP-run local councils.

Two police cars were tipped over and burned by crowds of angry Rescue supporters at one polling station in Phnom Penh by opposition voters who could not cast their ballots. Hun Sen's party claimed it won 68 seats in the 123-seat assembly based on provisional figures, while Sam Rainsy's party says it won at least 63, giving it a majority in parliament and the right to rule, even though the official 55 seats were far more than anyone expected given the widespread attempts that intimidation.

Analysts have maintained that under parliamentary rules the opposition's bloc of 55 seats could prevent Hun Sen's party having the necessary quorum required to form a government. That has been complicated by Hun Sen's threat to give opposition seats to unelected parties if the CNRP failed to take their seats. Hun Sen insisted there was one of the safeguards in place to overcome such an opposition boycott of parliament.

Regrettably, in the minds of human rights groups here, throughout the election, Sam Rainsy, in a constant theme of what can only be branded as paranoia, blamed Vietnamese from Cambodia's eastern neighbor for illegally voting, to the extent that the Vietnamese embassy unusually accused him of racially charged rhetoric in order to score political points.

European observers stationed at the border said they could find no trace of such Vietnamese, and one man who allegedly looked Vietnamese was roughed up, suffering head injuries by voters at a Phnom Penh polling station before it was established he was Khmer. Cambodians are encouraged by Sam Rainsy to believe that Vietnamese take their jobs, although most Vietnamese work as plumbers and electricians, and hairdressers, jobs that Cambodians show less aptitude for.

Sam Rainsy remains confident-looking, and had an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni, and Queen Mother Monineath, widow of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last October in Beijing. Since Sihanouk's death, Hun Sen had seemed to dictate orders to the new monarch, but with Sam Rainsy having done so well in the election, the king will have someone else to listen to as well.

Sam Rainsy thanked the popular monarch for his royal pardon, and said the CNRP position was that the throne is a symbol of national unity, a quality that seemed somewhat short of being a reality in Phnom Penh this week.

(James Pringle is a veteran correspondent who has covered Asia for Reuters, Newsweek and other publications)