Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Cambodia’s opposition party insisted Thursday that an independent committee to investigate cheating in this week’s election must be established before it holds talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party on resolving differences in establishing a new government.

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party declared its conditions in response to Hun Sen’s offer to hold party-to-party talks and support the probe into the polls.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has said the provisional election results show it winning 68 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats, with remaining 55 going to the opposition party.

The opposition party wants an investigation into voting irregularities, claiming that more than 1 million people may have been deprived of their right to vote. On Wednesday it staked a claim of its own to winning a majority of 63 assembly seats.

The preliminary tally of the popular vote, released Thursday by the government-appointed National Election Committee, showed Hun Sen’s party with 3,227,729 votes and the opposition with 2,941,133, with less than half-a-million other votes shared among six other parties that failed to capture any seats. The committee

Even with a minority of seats, the opposition holds considerable leverage, because if it does not show up at parliament, the assembly will lack a quorum to open the new session and no government can be formed.

Hun Sen could then head a caretaker government until the deadlock is broken or try to find a loophole allowing parliament to convene, which could raise tensions inside the country and with foreign aid donors.

The prime minister’s offer of talks came Wednesday in his first public comments since the election, which even by his own party’s tally showed the opposition making a surprisingly strong gain from the 29 seats it held before.

Hun Sen’s remarks, while conciliatory and appealing the need for national unity, did not include any real concessions aside from his agreement that setting up a body to probe electoral irregularities could be productive.

Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said a dialogue between the parties could take place after the independent bipartisan group it proposed to the National Election Committee was established to investigate widespread reports of people being unable to cast their ballots.

“But at the moment the priority task that we have to do now is to find justice for the people whose names disappeared from the voting list so they were unable to vote,” he said.

He also said his party had not yet received any direct request from the ruling pary to hold discussions, and knew of the offer only from press accounts of Hun Sen’s remarks.

Speaking earlier to Radio Australia, opposition leader Sam Rainsy sought to link his party’s claim of victory and an investigation into voting problems.

“Yes, we accept to do dialogue, to talk, but the objective is to establish and to expose the truth, nothing less because we can move forward only once the truth is recognized by everybody, and the truth is that the ruling party after ruling Cambodia for 34 years has lost this election, and there is a democratic change under way in Cambodia,” he said.

He added that talks with the ruling party could be held “very soon.”

With a nod to Hun Sen’s reputation as one of Asia’s wiliest politicians, he said he had been “dealing with Prime Minister Hun Sen for 20 years, so what is important is deeds, not only words. So we have to be very careful and we want the international community to witness and the United Nations to be a referee.”

Sam Rainsy later led a group of his party’s leaders to see the King Norodom Sihamoni, with whom they met for more than an hour.

It was a royal pardon from the king that allowed Sam Rainsy to return from four years of exile earlier this month without facing a jail term on convictions the opposition charged were politically concocted. The king is a virtually powerless constitutional monarch, and issued the pardon at the behest of Hun Sen.

However, associating himself with the king could offer some political benefit to Sam Rainsy, as the monarchy is generally well-regarded by Cambodians, largely because of the respect they had for Sihamoni’s father and predecessor, Norodom Sihanouk, who led the country into independence from France and in his later years tried to temper Hun Sen’s authoritarian tendencies.