Funcinpec’s abrupt emergence from the political shadows of its coalition partner, the CPP, continued last week with royalist leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh telling villagers in Prey Veng province they would soon have a chance to choose a prime minister.
But obstacles placed in the path of people registering to vote in elections, and orders by Buddhist patriarchs that monks must not take part in the poll, dominated Prince Ranariddh’s pre-election message.
“I am not campaigning. I just remind people that on July 27, 2003…[you] choose not only parliamentarians, but vote to choose a prime minister. Any party who wins, its president will be prime minister,” Prince Ranariddh said on Thursday.
“I only remind you of your right,” he said.
Careful not to mention party affiliation, Prince Ranariddh also said some officials had previously prevented voter registration, and said instructing Buddhist monks not to vote was undemocratic.
Following their dismal showing in February’s commune elections, Funcinpec officials blamed low registration of royalist supporters in rural areas, claiming as many as 1 million people were prevented from casting their ballots.
“Democracy means Khmer people are the owners of the water and land and have the right to choose their leaders every five years. But when they go to register they have difficulties,” he said.
“Monks, I think, should not make political activities but the election law allows monks…to vote.”
Leaders of Cambodia’s Buddhist sects have been accused of telling monks not to vote as a way to discourage their involvement in incidents like the street protests that erupted around the 1998 elections.
The recent statements by Prince Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen indicate that campaigning for Cambodia’s general elections have unofficially kicked off for the country’s two largest parties.
On Monday, Hun Sen told some 15,000 villagers in Kompong Speu province that he intends to remain in power for at least the next decade.
But if unsuccessful at the polls, Hun Sen said his future would be confined to the golf course, his grandchildren and offering merit to monks at pagodas.
“I can continue for two more terms and be only 60. And the people who want to replace me are older than me,” Hun Sen said.
He also reiterated the coalition government with Funcinpec was like an airplane with two wings.
With the elections approaching it is natural that the royalist party—which has spent four years building peace and stability in its coalition with the CPP—would now speak out on particular issues, said Noranarith Anandayath, an adviser to the prince.
“Funcinpec will always remain an independent, political party. It is time for us to speak,” Noranarith Anandayath said on Tuesday.
Funcinpec is now concerned that some of its supporters will be prevented from acquiring family books and other official documentation necessary to registering for the election, he said
“We are very concerned and call on the donor community to make sure the [National Election Committee] or the government have some condition that 95 percent of voters are registered.”
But Noranarith Anandayath moved to quashed speculation that Funcinpec’s stance was causing tension with the CPP, which recently lashed out at royalist criticism of its record on poverty reduction, reining in corrupt officials and solving border encroachment.
“Everything is fine. This is campaign season,” he said.
Funcinpec lawmaker Ok Socheat said Tuesday the Funcinpec election strategy was to stop quarreling with fellow democrats in the Sam Rainsy Party, and secondly to re-enforce the party’s original mission of opposing corruption, protecting the borders and reducing poverty.
“Democrats should not quarrel with each other. If we keep quarreling we will not have time to undermine the communists,” Ok Socheat said.
“Funcinpec has the ambition to be the first [election] winner, not just number two,” Ok Socheat said, adding that Funcinpec must be proactive if Cambodia is to again emulate King Sihanouk’s 1955-1970 Sangkum Reastr Niyum “golden age.”
Diplomats said last week they will be monitoring the progress of the Funcinpec campaign, which could cause friction if it becomes too critical of the CPP.
“This will be one we are watching,” said a Western diplomat.
An emerging pattern of dissent has been developing within Funcinpec and there were obvious signs that some party members wanted to make a stand in the lead-up to the election, the diplomat said.
“I would have to think [the CPP] were very surprised…. They wouldn’t be happy,” the diplomat said.
It remains to be seen if the criticism develops into a more permanent and acrimonious split between CPP and Funcinpec, or if the more outspoken royalists are gagged in the lead up to the election, the diplomat said.
But a second diplomat said the coalition is far from facing a rift.
Both parties should already know what each other is doing or should open talks to ensure there is no confusion about their campaign messages, the diplomat said.
“A rift is an overstatement. Possibly there is some political posturing as both sides read each other in the build up to the election,” the diplomat said.
Hun Sen has been at the helm of Cambodian politics since the mid-1980s.
Though losing in the country’s first democratic elections organized by the UN in 1993, Hun Sen held on to power by striking a power-sharing deal with then-first Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh.
In 1997, troops loyal to then-second Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted the prince.
The CPP won the 1998 general election and formed a coalition with Funcinpec as a junior partner.
But Funcinpec’s crushing loss in the commune elections was widely regarded as disenchantment with the party and a sign the CPP is set for a big win in the general election.
Diplomats say Hun Sen is following the same route as many other Southeast Asian leaders whose rule is molded in the shape of a long-standing dynasty.
Political history in the region teaches a tough lesson that once power is lost the former leader risks losing everything at the hands of rivals who usually seek revenge for past grievances, they said.
Either remaining in power or passing it on to close, trusted supporters is a common strategy and one which Hun Sen is likely to follow, the diplomats said.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)