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PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Cambodia's opposition on Monday rejected the claim of victory by the ruling party of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen in weekend elections, alleging widespread irregularities.
The newly united opposition made significant gains in Sunday's polls, which independent poll monitors also criticised as flawed.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) announced late Sunday it had taken an estimated 68 out of the 123 seats in the lower house, against an increased 55 for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
"We can say we've won this election," CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP.
The CNRP however called for a committee representing the two main political parties, the National Election Committee, civil organisations and the United Nations to "be urgently established" to investigate complaints.
It said in a statement it "cannot accept the results" because of "a lot of serious irregularities".
The CPP had 90 seats in the previous parliament, so if confirmed the result would mark the loss of 22 seats, despite the exclusion of the opposition leader who was barred from running.
The CNRP has decried what it described as the kingdom's worst ever poll irregularities, including missing voter names and thousands of people who turned up to find someone else had used their ballot.
Rights groups also expressed concern that the ink used to mark voters' thumbs to ensure they did not vote more than once could be easily washed off.
"It is very difficult to proclaim this a free and fair election," Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, told AFP on Sunday.
"I think the level playing field in the process didn't really exist. There has not been equal access to the media and the opposition leader was not allowed to run as a candidate."
The National Election Committee denied irregularities.
Even before polls opened, the opposition had said a Hun Sen win would be "worthless" without the participation of its leader Sam Rainsy.
The French-educated former banker returned to Cambodia on July 19 from self-imposed exile after receiving a surprise royal pardon for criminal convictions which he contends were politically motivated.
But he was barred from running as a candidate since the authorities said it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.
Local poll monitor the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia alleged that up to 1.25 million people who were eligible to cast ballots were not on voter lists.
Hun Sen -- a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected from the murderous regime -- has been in power for 28 years.
He oversaw Cambodia's transformation from a nation devastated by their "Killing Fields" genocidal era in the late 1970s to become one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant economies.
But the 60-year-old premier -- who has vowed to rule until he is 74 -- is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and muzzling political freedoms.
For decades, his 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.
Hun Sen's confidence in his formidable party machine was so complete that he took the unusual tactic of not personally campaigning for his re-election.