Cambodians headed to the polls yesterday with Prime Minister Hun Sen widely tipped to retain the leadership, as an explosion in the capital detracted from a mostly peaceful election day.
Police said that shortly after the bomb blast outside the FUNCINPEC party headquarters, which did not cause any casualties, two hand grenades were found outside the palace which is home to the party's founder King Norodom Sihanouk.
"We are investigating what kind of bomb it was, and then we will make a statement later," Deputy Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pou told AFP.
The incidents came after what analysts had hailed as the most peaceful election campaign in the history of this emerging democracy, where previous ballots have been marred by violence.
More than 6.3 million people were expected to choose from 22 political parties as they cast their votes yesterday for a new government in the 123-seat National Assembly.
Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany led proceedings by voting under a sunny sky at a school in the southern Phnom Penh suburb of Takhmao, amid a cordon of bodyguards.
Hun Sen told reporters that under the election laws he had to refrain from commenting on the poll, but he added: "The weather is very nice which should help people to vote and I hope all Cambodians will come out to vote."
The prime minister has also urged his citizens to abstain from drinking alcohol on election day to avoid violence and maintain the dignity of the event.
Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) are favoured to win the poll over coalition partner FUNCINPEC and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), after the premier's rivals ran a campaign dominated by nationalist rhetoric.
The SRP has also accused the CPP of squandering 400 million dollars a year through corruption, and along with FUNCINPEC has promised pay rises to government workers including teachers, nurses, police and the military.
Hun Sen maintained a low profile throughout the month-long campaign.
FUNCINPEC chief Prince Norodom Ranariddh said his party hoped to match its performance in 1993 elections when it won a majority of seats, but added it would never again enter a power-sharing arrangement like the one which followed.
"Now I can say in a very clear manner, if FUNCINPEC wins the election like in 1993 I will share power only with a partner who will respect all of the political programs of my FUNCINPEC," he said at a polling station.
FUNCINPEC won 58 seats out of 121 in the 1993 elections for the National Assembly. But a dispute with the CPP, which won 47 seats, was resolved by appointing both party leaders as co-premiers.
An acrimonious cohabitation followed, with Ranariddh as first prime minister and Hun Sen as second prime minister, finally erupting into a bloody coup in 1997 and Ranariddh's ouster.
Hun Sen assumed the top post and then won the 1998 election with his CPP picking up 64 seats out of 122, to FUNCINPEC's 43. The CPP then formed a coalition government with FUNCINPEC as junior partner.
Speaking before the blast, Ranariddh said nearly 300 irregularities and widespread vote buying had been reported in the 2003 election campaign.
The problems meant "we cannot definitely qualify this election as completely fair and free," he said.
Early on polling day, election observers in Phnom Penh, central Kompong Cham and northern Siem Reap provinces said the mood was calm and up-beat.