PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The first returns from Cambodia's first multiparty election in more than two decades showed an early lead yesterday for the opposition party associated with Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
Although the United Nations released partial vote counts from only four of Cambodia's 21 provinces and warned against early predictions of the final outcome, the returns were consistent in each province. They showed the royalist opposition party in first place by a sizable margin, followed by the governing Cambodian People's Party, with the 18 other parties far behind.
Yesterday's results, representing slightly more than 1 percent of the 4.2 million ballots cast nationwide, were released in Phnom ,, Penh as diplomats and U.N. officials raised fresh concerns that the incumbent Vietnamese-installed government might try to hold on to power by force even if it lost at the polls.
At a meeting yesterday among long-warring factions in Cambodia's 14-year civil war, Prime Minister Hun Sen and a group of grim-faced deputies failed to give a clear promise that the government would honor the election results. The prime minister said instead, "We are awaiting the election results with the hope that the counter votes would proceed in strict conditions."
The government was installed in 1979 by Vietnam after the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and ended a four-year reign of terror by the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians in the 1970s.
The Khmer Rouge, now leading an insurgency against Mr. Hun Sen's government, did not carry out their threat to sabotage the voting with violence.
At Saturday's meeting in Phnom Penh, Prince Sihanouk, the 70-year-old head of state, congratulated the director of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, on a "tremendous, historic achievement" in carrying out the unexpectedly peaceful election.
But the prince, who is believed to be maneuvering to form a coalition government, warned that the period after the election might hold new threats of violence.
"I don't say the period following the election will be absolutely calm and quiet," he said. "We might face difficulties, even in the military field."
The party founded by Prince Sihanouk is now led by one of his sons. The prince was toppled from power in a 1970 coup.
The election, the centerpiece of a U.N. operation intended to end Cambodia's civil war, will choose a 120-member constituent assembly that is to write a new constitution.
Each province is assigned seats in the assembly based on population. The election results in each province will determine how the seats are divided among parties. The vote count is expected to end within a week.