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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Royalist influence remains the wild card

Royalist influence remains the wild card

A s the election campaign even now gears up, Jason Barber reports on the political

jockeying for Royal approval.

OF all the gossip on Phnom Penh's overworked political rumor mill, perhaps the most

intriguing is that King Norodom Sihanouk is planning to abdicate and enter politics.

There is no evidence the rumor is true - the King himself has firmly told recent

visitors he has no such plan - and it remains no more than a topic of speculation

by government officials, MPs and others.

But it highlights the considerable pressure the King is under from those disgruntled

with the government, and the possible influence of the Royalist vote on the next

election.

A Funcinpec MP - who like all approached for comment would not be named - said the

King had been asked to revive his Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People's Socialist Community)

political movement of the 1950-60s.

The request had come from many people - whom the MP did not specify - who preferred

the idea of "letting the King rule for a while" to the current government.

The MP said he had no reason to believe the King would abdicate, but everybody was

well aware that His Majesty was impossible to predict.

"When the King plays cards, he always has an ace up his sleeve," he added.

A senior government official said the prospect of the King running in the 1998 general

election was being talked about by political "theorists".

There was no serious "full debate" about whether the King would be prepared

to do so, though it was certainly "in the minds of people in the government,

including the leaders".

History, particularly, is in the minds of all.

In 1955 - after an overwhelming vote of confidence from the population in a Royal

referendum - King Sihanouk proposed a series of constitutional changes which would

have extended democratic rights and given any King of Cambodia a degree of executive

power.

After criticism of the proposals, he publicly dropped them - and a week later abdicated

the throne to his father.

Within several months he formed the Sangkum, winning a huge majority in the September

1955 general election and staying in power till the 1970 Lon Nol coup.

The parallels with modern times do not escape today's politicians, though those who

may support the King are quicker to draw them.

The King is bound by a constitutional monarchy which allows him to reign but not

rule. He has expressed some dissatisfaction with government policies, over issues

such as deforestation, corruption and human rights, and has publicly said that he

is not listened to by the government.

There have been calls - though certainly not from himself - for constitutional changes

to allow His Majesty greater power. These in turn have been met with ardent statements

from some government leaders that the constitution must be defended.

It is clear that King Sihanouk has been under pressure from some quarters to do more

to influence government policy, to the extent he has expressed annoyance at such

calls.

Several months ago, in a reply to a letter from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary

Union about the expulsion of Sam Rainsy, the King wrote that he had repeatedly stated

his views on that and other issues.

"But neither the Royal Government, nor the National Assembly need take into

account my positions.

"... I cannot do anything else to satisfy the Inter-Parliamentary Union, other

defenders of human rights, of the press, of the liberal democracy in Cambodia, than

abdicate... Is this what you wish?" he wrote.

Sources say that several people granted Royal audiences recently were told by the

King that he had no intention of entering politics.

They say he said it was impossible for him to publicly challenge his son, First Prime

Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Others point to the King's health, the future of the monarchy and the possibility

not all political groups would accept or abide by the King entering politics, as

further reasons why abdication is unlikely.

One close observer of politics said he felt that the King was "waiting for people

outside the government and within the government to come forth to him and [see] whether

they could be used by him."

At the heart of any debate about the King, and of calls for him to be given power,

lies His Majesty's well-known vision of "national reconciliation" for Cambodia.

Those who appear most willing to raise the possibility of him regaining power are

long-standing believers that the only way to neutralize the Khmer Rouge is to offer

them some share of power.

The King has urged KR nominal leader Khieu Samphan to form a party to run in the

1998 elections, while pointedly rejecting any prospect of others like Pol Pot ever

returning to Phnom Penh.

Some observers say that to promote national reconciliation and his other principles,

the King by no means has to take the huge step of ceding the throne.

They see similarities between the King's views and the principles of Sam Rainsy's

new party, for example, and suggest a Royal endorsement of such a party before the

next election would do wonders for its chances at the polls.

Rainsy, for his part, said last week it would be unreasonable for him or any other

politician to seek such an endorsement, as the King was "above politics."

On the broader issue of how important the Royalist vote will be in the 1998 election,

Rainsy said: "I think now that the monarchy is not at issue.

"In 1993, yes, it was. If you positioned yourself as the Royalist party, as

Funcinpec did, it was an asset to be the Royalist party.

"Now we have the constitution, we have the monarchy. Everybody accepts the monarchy.

It doesn't give you the competitive edge to proclaim to be the Royalists, everybody

is a Royalist already.

"What I can say, though, is that out of the leaders - Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh,

Son Sann, myself and others - I don't know any reason to believe that I am the farthest

from the King.

"The King has expressed support for me, sympathy for me, that he has not done

for any other leaders... I think I am well positioned to collect the Royalist votes."

On whether the King would be prepared to start or join a party, Rainsy had no comment.

"People can speculate, but I don't say anything.

"What I can say is that sometimes in the past the King has reserved a surprise.

I acknowledge that."

Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the King's half-brother and Secretary-General of the Funcinpec

party founded by the King in 1981, was similarly circumspect.

"I cannot get into that terrain," he said when asked about possible abdication.

"[But] I know this person, I know his charisma, I know his attachment to his

people. This person never let his character down.

Sirivudh said: "His Majesty never let Cambodian people down. He never let

Cambodia down. I don't think he's already said his last word."

As for Funcinpec, Sirivudh believed the party "must go back to Sihanoukism"

to have a chance of success in 1998.

The King had made it known that Funcinpec was no longer his party, but that of Prince

Ranariddh.

"In 1993, I sold Funcinpec quite clearly," said Sirivudh. "I said

we were founded by the King, that we were anti-Vietnamese.

"People gave money, people sold their cows, their homes. Of course we won. We

can't campaign on this any more. I hope Prince Ranariddh will still listen to His

Majesty and follow His Majesty."

Sirivudh urged Funcinpec to adopt the King's principles on the "big matters"

and "the one big thing that matters is national reconciliation."

"I believe we must decide that His Majesty and only him can achieve long stability

for Cambodia. I'm sorry for the others. I don't think we can compare some leadership,

however charismatic, to His Majesty the King... the charismatic brilliance of His

Majesty the King."

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