Cambodia braces for mass opposition protest

Thousands of Cambodians are set to join a mass protest in the capital Phnom Penh on Saturday in a last-ditch bid to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen's disputed election win.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has predicted that at least 20,000 people will join what could be one of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent years.

The CNRP has alleged widespread vote rigging in elections in July in which Hun Sen's long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) claimed victory.

Opposition leader Sam 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.

According to preliminary official results from the National Election Committee (NEC), the CPP won 3.2 million votes to the CNRP's 2.9 million.

The NEC is due to announce final results on Sunday, and the omens are not good for the opposition.

The country's Constitutional Council said Friday that it had reviewed the CNRP's complaints against the election results and had broadly rejected them.

"In generally, we uphold the decisions of the NEC," council spokesman Uth Chhorn told AFP.

The CNRP expressed dismay at the outcome and vowed to keep up the pressure.

"The NEC, the Constitutional Council and the CPP are all in the same basket. So they join hands to distort the will of the people. We cannot accept this," said party spokesman Yim Sovann.

"The only way for us is to hold a mass demonstration in Phnom Penh and if there is no change, the demonstrations will spread across the country," he added.

The opposition wants an independent investigation of the alleged vote fraud.

"The chances of the opposition succeeding in its demands are proportional to the number of supporters joining the demonstration," Cambodian independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay told AFP ahead of the rally.

Hun Sen's ruling CPP said it would not be swayed by the size of the protest turnout.

"They cannot put pressure on us," said senior party member Cheam Yeap. "The winning party won't become hostage to the losing side."

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.

Thousands of members of the security forces will be mobilised for the gathering at the city's Democracy Park, although the opposition has urged its supporters to avoid violence.

"If bad people try to cause trouble, our forces have the authority to prevent it and crack down on them," Phnom Penh police chief Chuon Sovann told AFP, but added that the opposition and authorities had agreed to work to ensure a violence-free rally.

Cambodia's government has urged foreigners to stay away from the rally while the US and Australian embassies have also warned their citizens to avoid the protest.