Cambodian opposition rallies as final poll results loom

Thousands of Cambodians, many holding lotus flowers symbolising peace, joined 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.

Around 10,000 people, some also carrying placards and ribbons with "my vote, my life" written in Khmer, gathered in a park in the capital ahead of an expected speech by the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), according to an AFP reporter at the scene, in what could be one of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent years.

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

Demonstrators on Saturday railed against the hotly contested CPP poll win, aware final results due on Sunday will effectively close the opposition's legal options to appeal.

"I came to demand justice. Our votes have been stolen... the victory of the people has been stolen," said Uy Sarouen, 54.

His comments were echoed by 29-year-old Chaing Chantara who said people want "real democracy".

"The election was very unjust. There were a lot irregularities that we cannot accept," he added, referring to alleged widespread voting fraud.

The men spoke as crowds waited for an address by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a French-educated former banker, who 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 general, 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 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 have been mobilised for the gathering at the city's Democracy Park but were keeping a low profile.

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.