PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- After nearly three decades of autocratic rule, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen may be facing his biggest political dilemma in years, with his party's parliamentary majority vastly eroded in weekend elections by a burgeoning opposition that could block his forming a government.
But the farmer's son whose favorite pastime is chess may still have some unexpected moves in his game.
After all, Hun Sen has already successfully bested the communist Khmer Rouge, the country's king, the international community and all political rivals big and small.
Whether Hun Sen prefers the carrot or the stick to break the possible post-election deadlock is not yet clear -- since he hasn't spoken in public since the polls.
With unchallenged authority over the bureaucracy and the security forces, he is likely to prevail in the end. But a forcible solution could come at the cost of unrest and violence. Sweeping all the chess pieces off the board would damage the softer, statesman's image he has been promoting in recent years.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, recently returned from exile, is demanding an independent investigation of alleged widespread irregularities in Sunday's polls. Beyond suggesting that it might ask for recounts or a new vote, the opposition hasn't declared what it might do. But legal experts say it could block the opening of parliament by not showing up and denying the assembly a quorum.
The unexpectedly strong showing by Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party seems to have punctured the aura of Hun Sen's invincibility.
"He is humbled and humiliated," said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst. "He has lost much credibility and legitimacy. He may put up a brave face, acknowledge his weaknesses and wrongdoing in public, and continue to lead his government," perhaps sharing more power with party colleagues.
Humbled or not, Hun Sen isn't expected to back down. His style was analyzed in a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.
"When CPP leaders perceive a choice between pluralistic liberal democracy and order, stability and economic development, they will exploit that conflict to maximize their own power and pre-empt opposition challenges to their political authority," it noted.
The cable, sent in the name of then-Ambassador Carol Rodley, also pointed to "a familiar pattern of post-election crackdowns seen in 1995, 1998, and 2005," while noting "much reduced violence, (and) the more sophisticated curtailment of wide-open freedoms."
Hun Sen nowadays harasses his opponents in the courts, which have a reputation for being under the government's sway. Overt violence has not disappeared, but no major incidents or murders were reported in this year's campaign.
Opposition leader Rainsy was a target of the legal approach, going into exile in late 2009 to avoid a jail sentence of 11 years on charges he said were politically concocted.
Hun Sen's engineering a royal pardon so Rainsy could come back for the last week of campaigning -- while remaining off the ballot -- shows his touch for the ostensibly generous gesture, though some wonder if his timing was uncharacteristically off, allowing opposition momentum to peak on election day.
Hun Sen now finds himself engaged in a game of who blinks first, as the opposition is united in a way it has never been before and can point to the strong support it won from the voters.
He could seek to open parliament through a legal loophole, though such a move would support charges of unfairness and high-handed behavior. His party and the government-appointed National Election Committee have suggested in the past that if the opposition would not take their National Assembly seats, they could be distributed to other parties, said Astrid Nor
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