The past 20 years have not been easy for the Funcinpec royalists.
After overwhelmingly winning Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993, the party, led by then-King Norodom Sihanouk’s son Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was strong-armed into a power-sharing coalition by the now-ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
It was all downhill from there.
Ranariddh was ousted from his position as first prime minister to Hun Sen’s second in a coup d’état four years later that saw bloody battles on Phnom Penh’s streets.
Since that first ephemeral peak in ’93, Funcinpec’s fortunes have plunged dramatically, with the CPP slowly eroding its power in successive coalitions that have left it a tiny minority partner with little political clout.
It won just two seats in the 123-member National Assembly in the 2008 elections.
“This is the last stage for Funcinpec.… The trend of their popularity has gone from being the winner to being the loser,” political analyst Kem Ley told the Post this week.
“The Cambodian people have no hope in Funcinpec [now].”
Set up by Sihanouk from exile in Paris in 1981, the party originally appealed to voters looking for a return to Cambodia’s so-called golden age under Sihanouk’s rule from 1965 to 1970, Ley said.
With Cambodian demographics now firmly skewed towards the youth and Royal appeal waning further in the wake of Sihanouk’s passing last year, the popularity of the royalists has diminished almost altogether, observers say.
“What’s interesting is that Funcinpec’s decline is in parallel with the decline of royalty as an institution in Cambodia,” eminent Cambodia scholar David Chandler said.
“There is no popular feeling for royalty anymore … only among older people.”
The roots of Funcinpec’s demise are often traced to the 1997 coup that saw its military forces overrun and party leaders forced to flee the Kingdom after a number of extrajudicial killings of loyalists. Amid international pressure, Ranariddh and others were allowed to return for the 1998 election, winning 43 seats. With the rise of the Sam Rainsy Party as a viable opposition force, the party won only 26 seats in the 2003 election. After Ranariddh was toppled as leader three years later, the party suffered dramatically, losing almost all of those seats in the 2008 election.
“Things went wrong in 2006.… The Funcinpec leadership at that time was all around Ranariddh, but they were not loyal to him,” a longtime Ranariddh adviser told the Post.
Nhek Bun Chhay, the current secretary-general of the party and an ally of Hun Sen, is alleged to have engineered the coup against Ranariddh, who went on to form an eponymous party that won two seats in 2008.
According to Funcinpec spokesman Tum Sambo, the royalists could win up to 15 seats this election thanks to a recent merger with the former Norodom Ranariddh Party (later renamed the Nationalist Party after Ranariddh was forced out last year) and a new party president in Sihanouk daughter Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey.
“We have joined together. All our supporters are back to one party with one voice.… After the King Father’s passing, more people will vote for the party,” Sambo said.
But observers are not as optimistic.
“For the majority of voters, I don’t think we can simply equate that two plus two [seats] will equal four seats,” political analyst Chea Vannath said.
Instead of emerging as an opposition force, Funcinpec’s longstanding partnership with the CPP has undermined its voter base, she added.
“Looking at the dynamism of the different parties and the dynamism of voters … they see Funcinpec as affiliated to the ruling party. So the common voters would rather vote for the big party.”
Chandler agrees: “They just didn’t have the voter base that Sam Rainsy managed to achieve.… They were [historically] strapped and outmanoeuvred by Hun Sen.”
In a sign that many Funcinpec members hold no illusions of a return to prominence, party spokesman Sambo said that in his personal opinion, the royalists should join the CNRP.
“If Funcinpec joined the opposition party … with all the old Funcinpec members … in my own thinking, it would be better for the party,” he said.
"But we want to join with all Khmers together in unity and solidarity," he added.
Party splits and defections have plagued Funcinpec over the years, with much of the CNRP leadership, including Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha and Mu Sochua, all former Funcinpec members.
According to a long-serving adviser of Ranaridd, who wished to remain anonymous, the recent merger will not do anything for the party.
“They are not on the Cambodian radar screen. They cannot garner any votes. They have no political platform.… They just have people running around like chickens without heads.”
A dyed-in-the-wool royalist himself, he has accepted that Sihanouk’s name is no longer enough in modern Cambodian politics.
“People want to know what you are going to do about unemployment, immigration, inflation, education.… Being a King’s daughter is not enough anymore.”