Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ranariddh flags intention to step down from NUF

Ranariddh flags intention to step down from NUF

Ranariddh flags intention to step down from NUF

FUNCINPEC president Prince Norodom Ranariddh appears to be on the edge of a precipice.

For the second time in as many weeks, the Prince has said he wants to step down as

head of the National United Front alliance. He says it is to devote more time to

Funcinpec, but there are signs his grip on the party has been waning.

Funcinpec Secretary General Tol Lah, said that while NUF members had agreed that

a Royal should preside "for the first shift", that shift appears to be

over.

"He was replaced by Son Soubert. The presidency of the NUF revolves, everyone

will get their turn," said Sam Rainsy Party steering committee member Tioulong

Saumura. "It is not a bad move."

Ranariddh's allies who have been critical of his leadership may be happy, but some

privately fret that he could be convinced or fooled into undermining the NUF.

Others want him to reconsider. Son Sann Party president Soubert said he would meet

with the Prince on May 22 to ask him again to remain as NUF leader.

Some think the Prince is withdrawing because of heavy criticism. He has been lambasted

for poor judgment and minimal leadership skills by his former coalition partners

in the CPP, defectors from his party, his electoral allies, and even some remaining

Funcinpec loyalists.

Some hint that he is heading toward a figurehead-like role. One senior Funcinpec

member said that the leadership of the party seems to lie with military leader General

Nhek Bun Chhay.

The disenchantment stems from what many in the party say have been bad decisions,

or no decisions, from the Prince.

One party source said that while the Prince ditched eight Assembly members from the

party's candidate list, he had not made the "consistent, hard decisions"

to eliminate others of dubious loyalty.

"Some [Funcinpec candidates], some of them high ranking MPs, had even become

advisers to Hun Sen. They are getting money from Hun Sen! We know that! Why nominate

them?" one party insider said.

Knowledgeable sources say that Bun Chhay met with Ranariddh in Bangkok and imposed

his own changes on the party's candidate list - time and time again.

"I don't want to point the finger, but it included some opinions from our prominent

party members," one official said. "Here and abroad."

Another party source was asked: "So who is running Funcinpec? Ranariddh or Nhek

Bun Chhay?"

"Bun Chhay. But don't name me," he said.

Bun Chhay has allegedly made overtures to other opposition members to display his

disenchantment with some of the Prince's actions.

While Funcinpec officials say that the party's decisions have long been made in the

fashion they are now, other opposition politicians suggest that there have been recent

changes as a result of disillusionment over recent rash choices made by the Prince

and a small clique around him.

"The attitude of the eminent Funcinpec members is that they make their decisions

together," said Son Soubert.

Another opposition figure put a less diplomatic spin on the situation in Funcinpec.

"There was Rana-riddh's behavior and our hope he would change. We got the impression

from Funcinpec members that the Prince was much better, and that decisions were made

by a committee," Sam Rainsy Party Assembly member Son Chhay said. "But

a few weeks ago, the Prince seems to have [gone] back to his stupid ways. The caring

members got upset."

Chhay said infighting in Funcinpec was rekindled when Ranariddh unilaterally ended

a successful National Assembly boycott without gaining substantive electoral concessions

from Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"They were trying to [improve the decision-making process] in Bangkok before

they came back to Phnom Penh. They thought they had solved the problem. They wanted

him to smile and not make mistakes, but when they got back, he made more problems,"

Chhay said. "He will not accept that, in reality, he just wants power. If that

is the case, they will have to switch [candidates] before elections."

Few expect Ranariddh to retire back to his life as a law professor in southern France.

Some even worry that he will do what he has said he never would: join forces once

again with the man who ousted him.

The Prince's political allies call it "the battle for the Prince's soul",

as they ponder what sticks and carrots Hun Sen can use to ease his former coalition

partner away from the united opposition.

Since Ranariddh's return from Bangkok on May 19, word has spread of an imminent meeting

between him and Hun Sen. Hun Sen's adviser Prak Sokhonn said the Prince can expect

an invitation to meet with Hun Sen "at a suitable time".

NUF member Sam Rainsy has doubted the Prince's willingness to stick with the NUF,

and has envisioned a "nightmare" scenario where Ranariddh would join elections

without the rest of the opposition.

Funcinpec officials in turn doubt Rainsy, who was openly wooed by Hun Sen as recently

as January. Senior Funcinpec sources privately expect the CPP to win the elections

and take power in a coalition with the Sam Rainsy Party.

Funcinpec believes it can win up to 40 of the 120 parliamentary seats in an election

rigged against them, members say, adding that in a fair election they would expect

a larger vote. Funcinpec insiders confirmed this week that King Sihanouk will not

be giving his blessing or patronage to the party - a key ingredient to its 1993 success

- for fear of attracting public criticism.

The CPP has said it is targeting around 73-78 seats, and Funcinpec expects Sam Rainsy

to strike a deal with Hun Sen to achieve the necessary 80-seat majority.

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