Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

A Prince Joins the Fray

Former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh is coming out of retirement. But will he be able to recapture his glory days?

Last month, former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh announced his return to political life after two years of quiet retirement. Speaking to a small gathering of supporters in rural Kampong Cham Province, the 66-year-old prince—a son of Cambodia’s mercurial former King Norodom Sihanouk—promised to breathe new life into the country’s downtrodden and divided royalist movement.

Coming at a time of overwhelming dominance by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which holds 90 of the 123 seats in the country’s National Assembly, the move seemed more than a little quixotic. When he retired in October 2008, Prince Ranariddh’s political capital seemed all but spent: expelled from his former party Funcinpec over accusations of embezzling party funds, his breakaway royalist faction, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, performed poorly in that year’s elections, winning just two seats. (Funcinpec, once a powerhouse of Cambodian politics, won another two).

The electoral disaster of 2008 also capped off a long period of decline for the royalists, who have sought to capitalise on widespread popular reverence for the country’s monarchy. Since Ranariddh led Funcinpec to victory at the UN-backed elections of 1993, the party has been adroitly out-manoeuvred by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP. In July 1997, Funcinpec was ousted from government by military forces loyal to Hun Sen, and Ranariddh fled Cambodia.

Since then, the party has accommodated itself to the ruling party, joining it as a junior coalition partner in exchange for a token role in government. Once a robust source of opposition, the party is today little more than an empty shell of patronage, clinging barnacle-like to the ship of state. The NRP, again under Ranariddh’s leadership, spent the two years of his retirement in the political wilderness.

Announcing his planned return to politics on December 5, Ranariddh accused his former Funcinpec party colleagues of selling out to the ruling party in exchange for personal benefits and ‘rotten posts’ in government. He has since also issued calls for unity, appealing for Funcinpec members to abandon their bankrupt leadership and join a new party—to be named Funcinpec 81, after the year of the party’s founding—under his own leadership.

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In person, Ranariddh bears more than a passing resemblance to his father Sihanouk, the patrician dynamo at the centre of modern Cambodian history. Like his father, the trilingual Prince—French-educated and cosmopolitan—today seems almost antiquated, a figure from a bygone era of Cambodian politics.

In a recent interview at his party’s Phnom Penh headquarters, the Prince said his decision to return to political life was made in part in response to thousands of letters and appeals from party members, upset at the current parlous state of the movement. ‘The royalist group has been divided into hopeless pieces, like children who have no parents,’ Ranariddh said. ‘I believe I must return and gather all the royalists.’

Ranariddh was relatively candid about the errors that brought his party low after its initial successes in the 1990s. Too many party officials, he said, entered into the game of patronage, and the competition for political spoils tainted their political credibility. ‘Flexibility is not always a good thing,’ Ranariddh said. ‘Most of our ministers applied a flexible theory: when they saw others get involved in corruption, they did so as well. They forgot their basic values and origins and political approach. This was our big mistake.’

On the other hand, he faulted Cambodia’s current liberal opposition—embodied by the Sam Rainsy Party, the second-largest party in parliament—as being defined only by its oppositionist stance.‘In Cambodia’, Ranariddh said, ‘the culture of the opposition party is only to oppose. I’ve never seen any actual results of any proposal from the opposition party. Corruption is still an issue, land is still an issue, so is the independence of the judiciary. There are many issues which remain the same—the CPP still rules.’

Ranariddh’s newest pledge is to hew to a ‘middle path’—to stake out a space within government, and promote change from within the system. He said he believes there’s ample time for the royalists to turn around their fortunes before commune council elections scheduled for 2012, and national elections the year after.

The prince said: ‘I don’t like the word “collaboration”—collaboration sounds like during the Second World War when Petain of France collaborated with the Nazis. I rather like to talk about cooperation. I share some concerns with the opposition parties; only the approaches are different. I believe that if we cooperate with the ruling party in the same system, maybe it will be more efficient.’

But after so long out of the game, analysts say he faces significant obstacles both in uniting his own camp and re-establishing his political credentials. Son Soubert, a political observer and former member of Cambodia’s Constitutional Council, says that with Funcinpec having relinquished its critical stance for a role in government, only a genuinely fresh approach from the royalists can attract fresh support. ‘If Prince Ranariddh is willing to positively criticise the government, it’s a good thing,’ he says, but adds that it would be ‘hopeless’ unless he sticks to his guns.

In a political system that pays little respect to the concept of a loyal opposition, it’s unclear how Ranariddh intends to toe the line between working with the government and taking stands on principle. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, says that though Ranariddh retains a small amount of political capital—mainly gleaned from his father Sihanouk’s lofty reputation—whether he has a role in government will depend largely on the whims of Hun Sen and the ruling CPP. Though he will likely try to play the royalist card to gain support at the ballot box, it’s by no means assured that Cambodian voters will rally to his call.

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‘It will probably surprise him that the people won’t immediately support the son of the former king,’ he says. ‘I don’t think Ranariddh can play the (royalist) card and get votes just because he’s the prince.’ Ou Virak says that the best he can hope for instead is a minor coalition deal with the CPP, with perhaps a prestige post in government for himself thrown into the bargain.

The timing of Ranariddh’s announcement may also pose troubles for the rest of the royalist camp. Funcinpec and the NRP had previously embarked on an ambitious plan to reunite ahead of the 2013 national elections in a bid to rebuild their vote. The parties have engaged in months of talks, which have become snarled on issues of what the new party should be called and how plum posts should be divided up among the parties’ powerbrokers.

Now that Ranariddh has re-entered the scene, touting his own merger plan, his criticisms of Funcinpec’s current leadership threaten to deepen old divides. Whether he can bring the royalists back together without his former comrades—by force of personality and principal alone—remains to be seen.

‘I still don’t believe these personalities can be reconciled,’ Son Soubert says, referring to the Funcinpec leadership. ‘It’s better for Prince Ranariddh to keep his own agenda and see what he can do for the rest of the country.’

The Prince, like his father, may not be able to resist the lure of the limelight—‘doing politics is the same as being addicted to opium,’ he admitted to supporters last month. But whether his royalist appeal will be as magnetic as in the past awaits 2013, and the test of the Cambodian voter.