Seven more senior Funcinpec members announced Tuesday they have joined the Sam Rainsy Party, adding to what has become a steady stream of political defections from the royalist party ahead of the July general elections.
The defectors included three royalist parliamentarians, two undersecretaries of state, an assistant to Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and an adviser to Senate Vice President Nhiek Bun Chhay.
A total of 12 of Funcinpec’s top officials have now left Funcinpec, while Sam Rainsy has now boosted the opposition’s National Assembly presence from 15 to 18 seats—scoring a massive, symbolic victory over the ailing royalist party, of which Sam Rainsy was once finance minister before being expelled in 1994.
Prince Ranariddh refused to speak with reporters on Tuesday about the latest exodus of politicians from his party.
Cambodia’s political scene now seems set for the Sam Rainsy Party to seriously challenge Funcinpec for the No 2 spot in the forthcoming government.
If successful, it would put the opposition in line to become a coalition partner with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
Western and Asian diplomats also say they believe that Sam Rainsy will make a good showing in the poll at Funcinpec’s expense. But it would not likely be until the 2008 general election that Sam Rainsy will be a real challenger to the CPP, diplomatic officials said.
Jubilant opposition officials celebrated the mass defection with further warnings that more Funcinpec officials will join their ranks.
“Today we made a clear decision that we have to continue our political life and we have decided to stand in the election for the Sam Rainsy Party,” former Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy said at a news conference outside the Assembly.
“We are joining the Sam Rainsy Party because we think Sam Rainsy is opposing the dictatorship and…is a strong and brave leader,” Keo Remy said.
“I was in the wrong political situation and being in the Sam Rainsy Party is the right political decision,” he said.
Keo Remy said he would not be required to relinquish his post in the Assembly as it was protected by the Constitution.
“I appeal to all supporters to understand my change in political position from Funcinpec to Sam Rainsy and please continue to support me,” he said.
Former Funcinpec Parliamentarian Ismail Yusof; Neou Phirith, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs; Agriculture Ministry Undersecretary of State Chhun Sareth; Nhek Vannara, an assistant to Prince Ranariddh; and Kem Sokhon, an adviser to Nhiek Bun Chhay, also announced their departure from Funcinpec at the press conference.
“We are prepared to stand in the election in order to oppose government corruption and to reduce poverty,” Ismail Yusof said. Nhek Vannara said his decision was prompted by a desire to oppose dictatorial rule in Cambodia, while Kem Sokhon said, “What Sam Rainsy is doing conforms with my conscience.”
Keo Remy also said Funcinpec Parliamentarian Sao Ngin had defected. Contacted by telephone in Siem Reap, Sao Ngin confirmed he had left the royalists because he had lost faith in the party leadership.
Shortly after the press conference, a dozen reporters traveled to Prince Ranariddh’s home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where the royalist leader was distributing presents to some 50 Sam Rainsy Party supporters from Kompong Cham province who have vowed to vote Funcinpec.
The prince declined to comment on the most recent royalist defections, but royalist lawmaker Ok Socheat said the departure of Keo Remy and others would not affect the royalist party because they did not have much support among royalist voters.
“Funcinpec knew all these people were leaving, and it is only Sam Rainsy that makes noise about this,” Ok Socheat said.
In the past month, Former Funcinpec secretaries of state Ahmad Yahya and Kieng Vang also defected to the opposition while four other senior party officials joined the Sam Rainsy Party earlier this year.
Most blamed the leadership of Prince Ranariddh, and a coterie of officials who they claim have surrounded the prince, allegedly enriching themselves at the expense of the party’s political vision and its grassroots supporters.
“[Keo Remy] is one of the best people in Funcinpec,” said opposition parliamentarian Tioulong Saumura.
“In concrete terms, the defections will strengthen the number of royalist votes for the [opposition] party. In general, it shows a good image of how democrats are working together,” she said.
Noting that she too was once a member of Funcinpec, Tioulong Saumura said: “Old friends are coming back on board,” and the defection was only the “first wave” of Funcinpec officials poised to jump ship before voting day.
Party leader Sam Rainsy said the defections will continue, but the “big fish” in Funcinpec will not resign until the eve of the election, a strategic move aimed at creating a “snowball” effect of voters in favor of the opposition party.
“The most lucid [Funcinpec officials] have joined the party,” Sam Rainsy said, claiming that the party is on course to win a minimum of one third of the election votes.
“It is the [opposition] who is the real royalist party,” Sam Rainsy said, noting that his party has continued to fight for Funcinpec’s founding ideals of protecting Cambodia’s territorial integrity, promoting democracy and opposing government corruption and alleviating poverty.
The opposition would be prepared to work with the CPP in a future government, but only if an agenda of real reform was implemented, Sam Rainsy added.
Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay also said a coalition with the CPP was possible, but not under the leadership of Hun Sen.
Son Chhay hinted that some senior CPP members were open to the idea of working with the opposition, though Hun Sen has repeatedly suggested that only Funcinpec could work in a coalition government with the CPP.