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Prince's retirement has divided royalists looking for future rebirth

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Prince Ranariddh's withdrawal from politics casts a fresh shadow over

the Kingdom's divided royalist parties, but analysts say it will have

little impact on the rest of the political landscape

HENG CHIVOAN

Prince Ranariddh at a dinner on Thursday night during which he announced his resignation from active politics.

PRINCE Norodom Ranariddh's retirement from active politics and reconciliation with the new government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has closed the curtain on one of Cambodia's enduring personal rivalries.

But analysts say it will have little impact on a political landscape long dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party and increasingly isolated from the upheavals of the Kingdom's divided royalists, who now face a future on the political periphery.

Ranariddh's resignation came just days after a royal amnesty overturned his 2007 fraud conviction and allowed him to return to Cambodia from 18-months of self-imposed exile in Malaysia. Shortly after his arrival September 28, Ranariddh said he was walking away from active politics.

"I met the King this morning and I told him that I have quit politics," the 64-year-old Prince told journalists at a dinner last Thursday night. "I am no longer an opposition party. But I have come back to Cambodia and I want to serve my nation."

A Norodom Ranariddh Party statement released Saturday said the Prince has handed control of the party to Vice President Chhim Siek Leng, whose appointment as president is likely to be confirmed at the next party congress.

Ranariddh's resignation caps a long decline in the fortunes of Cambodia's royalist movement. Since Funcinpec's victory in the UN-brokered elections of 1993 - a high-water mark of royalism that saw Prince Ranariddh lead the party to win 58 seats in the National Assembly - the party has lost ground at every poll, dropping from 43 seats in 1998 to 26 seats in 2003.

In July's national election, the party lost 24 of its remaining seats, winning just five percent of the national vote. The breakaway NRP, led by Ranariddh from his Malaysian exile, won another two seats.

Business as usual

Despite the symbolism of Prince Ranariddh's resignation, sources close to the Prince say it will have little affect on the day-to-day running of the country.

"Cambodian politics will just continue along as usual," said the Prince's adviser, Naranariddh Ayandanath. "Prince Ranariddh has served the people for the past 25 years and I believe he has done his duty as a royal and as a Cambodian. He thinks that is enough."

Other sources said that the Prince still had a strong public profile and would likely exercise the same moderate influence in retirement as he did while in exile.

Koul Panha, executive director of election monitor Comfrel, told the Post that the resignation of the Prince and the expected appointment of his deputy as NRP president merely formalised the situation that has existed since Ranariddh fled the country in March 2007. "While Ranariddh was away, Chhim Siek Leng was the acting president, so it's not a big change," he said.

Son Soubert, who sits on the Constitutional Council as a Human Rights Party delegate, agreed politics would be business as usual in the Prince's absence. "I don't think this [resignation] will affect anything because the Prince's personality is still known amongst the people," he said, adding that though it was a symbolic end of an era, the Prince could still draw on reserves of political capital. "He has a lot of credibility of his own," he added.

Despite his resignation, the NRP has announced it will retain Prince Ranariddh's name and image going into the next mandate, a move Naranariddh Ayandanath said was vital for the party in the long term.

"People enjoy hearing his name," he said. "He has served this country from very difficult periods to where we are now, and his name bears a lot of responsibility. That's why we are honoured to use his name."

Koul Panha said this was an indication the Prince might yet have some political cards to play. "He still puts his name on the party, so he will make sure his name keeps strong in [Cambodian] politics," he said.

Royalist rebirth?

But analysts say Cambodia's divided royalists will need more than name recognition to regain the trust of an electorate that all but abandoned them in this year's national election.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the involvement of royal figureheads in Cambodian politics had tainted the monarchy's reputation, and that Ranariddh's resignation would be a good thing for the royal family. "Let normal people walk in politics," he said. "In election campaigns, politicians are always impacted by criticisms, and this impacts the reputation of the royal family. The Prince's resignation is good for the monarchy."

Son Soubert agreed, saying the tendency to fall back on evocative symbolism rather than concrete policies had harmed the royalists in the past. "They all use the image of King Father [Norodom Sihanouk]. It hurts the image of the King. If royalist parties want to build their base, they should not call themselves royalist," he said.

Funcinpec public affairs officer Ok Socheat said there was still strong faith in the institution of the monarchy, adding that royalist parties faced a grim future if they could not heal the divisions in their ranks.

"People did not vote for the royalists because divisions occurred ... and they turned to vote for other parties," he said. "They still love the King because they think the King is the roof covering the people."

Lu Laysreng, first deputy president of Funcinpec, agreed: "If royalists do not love royalists, how will the people love royalists?" he said.

On September 8, Prince Sisowath Thomico, who founded the now-defunct Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party in 2006 after being ousted from Funcinpec, announced plans for a new party to unite the scattered royalist vote in the wake of the 2008 national elections.

"We are waiting to see if a new government will regard royalism as a way of pointing the country in the right direction," he told the Post at the time. "If so, we will cooperate with them. If they don't, I will not allow royalism to lose votes."

Prince Thomico was abroad and not available for comment, but Son Soubert said the proposed establishment of a new royalist party was unlikely to gain much support. "If you take into account all the damage done to the image of the royalist parties, I don't think it would work. What sort of political platform would they have? It cannot be based on the image of the King Father. It needs to respond in some way to the needs of the people," he said.

However, Koul Panha warned against writing the royalists off altogether. "Maybe the next mandate will show that this was the breaking point for the royalists," he said. "But most of the royal family are politicians, so in the next five years things could change."

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