Back to Square One

When Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy launched their Alliance of Democrats last August to oppose the CPP’s election victory, observers expressed skepticism over how long the union between royalists and the opposition could last.

The image of the prince and the opposition leader smiling side-by-side, hands clasped and raised above their heads, was in sharp contrast with their previous history of animosity and public mud-slinging.

Few could forget that the prince booted Sam Rainsy from the royalist party in 1995, or the reports earlier the same year that Prince Ranariddh had joked about killing his new Alliance partner. Nor could observers forget the bitterness between the two leaders that flared up after they broke a loose alliance against the CPP during the post-election deadlock of 1998.

But, “in politics, friends are not always friends and enemies are not always enemies,” Funcinpec’s Deputy Secretary-General Ok Socheat said in August, as officials from both parties vowed their new Alliance would stick together at all cost.

Their aim to force Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down and ensure that the royalists and the opposition join the CPP-led government together‹would not be thwarted, they said.

Now, 11 months later and nearing the anniversary of the July 27 national election, political relations between the three party leaders‹dubbed by King Norodom Sihanouk as “The Strongman,” “The Invisible Man,” and “The Terrible”‹appear to have come full circle.

After a $12 million election and a deadlock of record-breaking duration, Funcinpec has rejoined the CPP in a third government mandate, with Hun Sen at the helm and the Sam Rainsy Party left outside the coalition once again.

As Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen appeared together last week, smiling before the cameras and congratulating each other for resolving the deadlock, verbal attacks between the prince and Sam Rainsy resumed.

Sam Rainsy spoke on Voice of America radio July 13, suggesting that the prince took bribes to enter a coalition with the CPP. On Sunday, Prince Ranariddh urged opposition members to defect to Funcinpec, charging that their leader is a troublemaker.

Aside from an overwhelming expansion of Cabinet positions and what some analysts say is a display of “maturity” by the parties for avoiding the bloodshed that marred previous elections, the end result of the deadlock appears little different than in 1998.

The government’s promises for reform remain largely unchanged. Following the 1998 election, Hun Sen outlined a plan that included new irrigation projects, a crackdown on illegal logging, and sweeping reforms on the tax and judiciary systems.

During his Cabinet speech last week, the prime minister again vowed to focus on building roads and irrigation systems, implementing judicial reforms and reducing corruption. The challenges that the new government faces, particularly in terms of poverty reduction, also remain largely unchanged.

In 1998, Cambodia ranked 140 out of 174 countries in human development, according to the UN Development Program. Infant mortality was the highest in Asia.

In the UNDP’s 2004 report, Cambodia notched up to 130th out of 177 countries, but “remains the worst performer in East Asia and the  Pacific when it comes to its Human Poverty Index” which measures longevity, access to education and standard of living.

Infant mortality here remains the highest in the region, with one-third of children under the age of 5 dying of acute respiratory infection or diarrhea, according to the aid agency World Vision. But with the new government having adopted a lengthy policy platform, hammered out after months of negotiations, some are hopeful the country’s leaders now will implement the reforms they’ve promised.

“Before we have not seen anything like that,” Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said of the new government platform. “That’s a change already.”

Despite broken relations with Funcinpec and no government positions, the past year of political wrangling has not been a loss for the opposition, Sam Rainsy said in a telephone interview from Bangkok last week.

The opposition’s remaining ties with members within Funcinpec along with CPP President Chea Sim’s abrupt departure to Thailand last week offer a sign that the current coalition government may  eventually fracture and force a leadership change, Sam Rainsy said.

“Prince Ranariddh is a minority in his own party. Hun Sen is still a minority in his own party,” he said, adding that “the choice of the Cambodian people” will prevail in the next national election in 2008.

For Hun Sen, however, the future of Cambodia’s political landscape is clear, according to the premier’s comments to reporters on July 15, after the Assembly approved his continued leadership.

“We must have a coalition government at least 20 or 30 years more,” he said.

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