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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Voters give royalists a stiff dose of reality

Voters give royalists a stiff dose of reality


Since scoring a substantial win in the national elections in 1993, beleagured royalists now find themselves a spent political force despite the monarchy’s enduring popularity

Vandy Ratanna

Funcinpec parliamentary candidate Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey finds her name on the voter list at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 27.

The rise and demise of funcinpec

Funcinpec was founded by former King Norodom Sihanouk in Paris on March 26, 1981 with the aim of opposing the Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia. Although Sihanouk resigned the party presidency in 1992 in order to be maintain his “neutrality” in the UN-sponsored 1993 elections, his son Prince Norodom Ranariddh led the party to a stunning victory on the back of his father’s popularity, clinching 45 percent of the popular vote and 58 seats in the National Assembly. But the party has lost ground at every election since, dropping from 43 seats in 1998 to 26 seats in 2003. According to preliminary election results released by the NEC Saturday, the party lost 24 of its remaining seats in 2008, winning just five percent of the national vote.

ELECTION results, no matter how preliminary, have shown a dismal showing for Funcinpec, the Kingdom's once-dominant political force whose electoral popularity appears to have plummeted as Cambodians voted against royalists candidates, despite their enduring support for the monarchy.

The party lost 24 of its 26 National Assembly seats, gaining just five percent of the vote and being surpassed as the second most powerful political player by historic underdogs, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, according to figures from the National Election Committee (NEC).

The aftermath of the July 27 parliamentary polls have revealed a party fractured by infighting, its factions pitted against one another by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the royalist's former coalition government partner.

But it is this closeness over the years - Funcinpec and the CPP first came together following the UN-sponsored 1993 elections - that is at the heart of the party's demise, some Funcinpec officials say, blaming the party for becoming "too comfortable" as the CPP's junior coalition partner, a role that gradually saw its power, and credibility disappear.

"I think that royalist supporters have lost confidence in [Funcinpec] because the party is too close to the CPP," said Monh Saphan, a Funcinpec parliamentary candidate for Kampong Cham province.

Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to play a divisive role in Funcinpec, offering another coalition deal to one faction inside the royalist party who remain loyal to his CPP, led by party secretary general Nhek Bun Chhay, while freezing out others who joined the opposition parties in condemning the election results.

"There is no space for you in our alliance and don't try to bargain for a power-sharing coalition government," Hun Sen told Funcinpec president Keo Puth Rasmey, its second secretary general Sisowath Sirirath and their followers during a speech last week in Kampong Speu province.

CPP spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith denied on Thursday that Hun Sen was deliberately encouraging a further splintering of the royalists. 

"We do not want to see Funcinpec breaking up, but they were wrong in selecting their political strategy during the campaign period," he said, adding that those in Funcinpec who do find themselves in partnership with the CPP are likely to pick up 30 government positions, including a ministerial post.

Wrong political strategy has long been the problem with Funcinpec, say some observers, explaining that the party has failed to adapt to Cambodia's changing political times, instead clinging too much to its association to former King Norodom Sihanouk, Funcinpec's founder, rather than find policies that reflected the reality of what Cambodians wanted out of their government.

"The question is not whether the monarchy continues to be relevant, but whether the political parties that claim they are royalist continue to be relevant," said Prince Sisowath Thomico, the former personal secretary of King Father Sihanouk.

"I don't believe that the people of Cambodia do not support the monarchy and royalism as a political philosophy. Rather, I believe the people lack confidence in the leaders of the so-called royalist parties," he added.

"The biggest mistake the royalists made was to use the monarchy to lead their movements. The decline of the royalist parties is linked to the birth of the new regime."

Benny Widyono, a former representative of the UN secretary-general who was stationed in Siem Reap during the 1993 election campaign, also said that Funcinpec had previously benefited from its association with the former king, but that the lustre had faded since the 1990s.

"The reason that Funcinpec won in 1993 was personality recognition and name recognition. When [former Funcinpec president Prince Norodom] Ranariddh was campaigning in Siem Reap, we didn't allow him to use Sihanouk on his banners, but he was still wearing a t-shirt with Sihanouk's face," Widyono told the Post.

"Name recognition is one thing, but effective campaigning is another....The way I see it, this election will be the end of Funcinpec," he added.

Other royalists, however, maintain that their party's crashing performance in this year's elections was the fault of vote rigging committed by the CPP, rather than a devastating loss of popularity - a claim echoed by many of Cambodia's other opposition parties.

"The royalist parties failed because the election was not free and fair according to international standards," Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Funcinpec's second deputy secretary,  told the Post shortly after the election, referring to both Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party, led by Funcinpec's former president.

"The National Election Committee (NEC) has set the system up to benefit the CPP by confusing voters and removing their names from polling stations," he added.

NRP spokesman Muth Chantha also said that due to the manipulation of voter lists by the CPP, the Cambodian people were deprived of their opportunity to cast their ballots for royalist parties.



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