Before ousting his royalist counterpart in 1997, then-second prime minister Hun Sen said two tigers could not share a mountain. Now, the approaching general elections have forced a coalition-bound Funcinpec to convince supporters that it remains a fierce competitor.
“Six months ago, people looked at Funcinpec as being out of the system and not strong enough to compete, but the perception has changed,” said Funcinpec Secretary-General Prince Norodom Sirivudh in a recent interview.
“We’re starting to promote a readjustment in thinking,” he said.
As the junior partner of the coalition, Funcinpec has faced criticism of being weak and bowing to the dominant CPP. Its bumpy history with the CPP consists of intermittent cooperation and conflict, confusing its supporters.
“They’ve been in a difficult position in the last five years,” said Dominic Cardy, program manager for the National Democratic Institute. “They’ve been a little bit of opposition and a little bit of government. Now is certainly the time to emphasize the opposition.”
Prince Sirivudh says the party is staking its ground as a challenger to the CPP, and not just a partner. Funcinpec has engaged the Sam Rainsy Party in a tug-of-war that earlier this year featured massive defections from both parties.
A dozen Funcinpec officials had switched to the Sam Rainsy Party at the end of March, when four Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarians declared their royalist loyalties in the span of a week.
Defectors said the Sam Rainsy Party was micromanaged and in disarray.
Then, in early June, the country’s television stations broadcast a CPP-produced program blaming Funcinpec for the 1997 fighting. The media attack showed that the CPP still considers the royalists as their primary political threat, Prince Sirivudh said.
“Now people realize who is it that really attracts the attention of the CPP,” Prince Sirivudh said. “People at the grassroots level are starting to realize that the real competition, the real challenge, is between CPP and Funcinpec.”
But Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said Funcinpec will struggle in casting itself as an opposition party because of its ties to royalty. Opposition parties are required to be diplomatic, but aggressive, she said.
“Being opposition, you need to be a gentleman as well as a street kid,” she said. “It’s very difficult for them be a street kid, because they are tied to monarchy.”
Funcinpec is instead perceived by some voters as a stabilizing force in the coalition, she said
“The perception about themselves is that they play a major role in stability…. They believe they hold the country in peace by being supple,” said Chea Vannath.
“So long as there is the power of check and balance in the coalition, Funcinpec is not deadwood,” she said.
Though Prince Sirivudh endorses the coalition, he acknowledges that Funcinpec must become more vocal to separate itself from the CPP. He said Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Funcinpec lawmaker Princess Norodom Vacheara had recently increased their visibility.
Earlier this year, the party opened Ta Prohm, its first radio station since the 1997 fighting, and a staunchly Funcinpec publication, called The Nationalist, appeared only in recent weeks.
“We must stand up and talk about how difficult it is to be a junior partner and about the ways we would like to modify and make reforms,” Prince Sirivudh said.
Prince Sirivudh said the Funcinpec platform is distinct from the CPP and the Sam Rainsy Party, calling for a halt to military build-up, more civic sector jobs and an assault on corruption.
“There’s money, but it’s not in national budget. It goes somewhere, through different channels that I call illegal,” Prince Sirivudh said.
Asked if Funcinpec officials were free of corruption, he said, “We are not really involved in corruption…but it’s time to do better. It’s time to go straight.”
Opponents say Funcinpec is not serious about reform.
“It is funny about the Funcinpec strategy,” said Prince Norodom Chakrapong, a former Funcinpec member who last year founded his own party. “Before the elections, they promise a lot. After they get power, they forget everything.”
“Every time, two months before the election, they start the same song,” he said.
Prince Sirivudh says Prince Chakrapong and Sam Rainsy are only diluting opposition to the CPP. “It’s better to push number two to boost number one,” he said.
He insists that Funcinpec can grow and counter CPP dominance from within the coalition, but that will hinge on how the party fares in the July 27 elections.
“It’s not time to talk about coalition,” Prince Sirivudh said. “It’s time to talk about competition.”