Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, vowed yesterday to stay in power even if he cannot form a coalition with rivals who have rejected last weekend's election results.
"If a new government cannot be formed, the current government will continue its work and there will be no temporary government," Hun Sen, Cambodia's undisputed strongman, told a crowd of farmers on the southwestern edges of the capital.
Although his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is heading for certain victory in the polls, all projections point to Hun Sen falling short of the two-thirds majority of seats he needs for outright control of the 123-seat National Assembly.
Citing election malpractice and general unhappiness with Hun Sen -- who has been in charge for nearly 20 years -- the opposition Sam Rainsy and royalist parties joined forces on Tuesday to vow never to enter any Hun Sen-led coalition.
Despite some poll irregularities, international monitors have given Sunday's general election in the fledgling Southeast Asian democracy a broad thumbs-up.
The EU, whose 128-strong team of monitors is the biggest and most respected international observer mission, said Cambodia's democratic glass was half full, not half empty.
"These elections were very well conducted, but we still feel there's some way to go to full democracy in this country," said chief observer and European parliamentarian Robert Evans.
Ominously, and despite international optimism, Cambodia's political situation is following the pattern of 1998's election fallout, when disputed results ended in mass protests and bloodshed on the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh.
With a political stalemate looming, diplomats said intervention by the ageing and revered King Sihanouk, the sole survivor of Asia's generation of Cold War leaders, might be the only way out.
Certainly, Hun Sen was in no mood for compromise.
"I am still the prime minister, I am still the government," he told the crowd. "Hun Sen is strong because he has the support of the people. Hun Sen will not resign because people have voted for him."
Although the National Assembly has to meet within 60 days after the polls, there is no constitutional limit on when a new government must be formed, meaning the stalemate could drag on.
"The option most people are looking at now is the intervention of the king," said one diplomat.
The octogenarian Sihanouk, who led Cambodia to independence from France in 1953, convinced the royalists in 1998 to enter a coalition with the CPP in the interests of national unity -- but only after several demonstrators had been killed by riot police.
It is less likely that the royalist party FUNCINPEC has the stomach for a fight this time round, diplomats say, although opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is winning nearly half the votes in Phnom Penh, might be able to put students on the streets in numbers.
With hundreds of riot police patrolling the capital, the opposition is coy about prospects for mass protests.
"We don't have any plans at the moment. We're not ruling it in or out," Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Ung Bun Ang said.
At the latest tally, official results from 77 percent of the country showed the CPP in front with 49 percent of votes, Sam Rainsy with 22 percent and FUNCINPEC slipping into third place with 20 percent.