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
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
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
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
"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."