At its annual party congress in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Funcinpec made official what it had announced earlier in the week by voting Princess Norodom Arunrasmy to be the royalist party’s prime minister candidate in the 2008 election.
In one sense, the choice of Princess Arunrasmy is a singularly progressive one, making Funcinpec the first Cambodian political party to select a woman as its prime minister candidate. But the congress and the selection of the princess also indicate that the window for Funcinpec’s former leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh to return to the party has closed.
With the prince out of the political picture—and leading his own Norodom Ranariddh Party—it seems a near certainty that Funcinpec, once preeminent in parliament, will take a beating at the polls in July.
Having been the victor in the 1993 election, the party has steadily lost ground in each successive national election, but their descent has taken a precipitous turn since their last party congress, exactly a year ago Thursday.
The ouster of Prince Ranariddh from Funcinpec’s presidency on that day split the royalist vote and presaged the disaster that was April’s commune elections: Funcinpec collected only 274 commune councilor seats, which was over 87 percent fewer seats than the 2,211 won in the previous election.
The 2008 national election will likely prove even more difficult for Funcinpec. Though clearly biased, the SRP has calculated that if Funcinpec receives the same percentage of vote tallies that it did in the commune elections it won’t win a single seat at the National Assembly next year.
Even if one discounts the deep split among royalist voters, Funcinpec’s current leadership lacks the visibility Prince Ranariddh brought to the party.
Thursday’s congress was illustrative of the party’s lack of star power as leader after party leader stiltedly read speeches straight from the page, relying on emcees to inform the audience when to applaud.
The scene was in sharp contrast to the rhetorical flourishes and bravado that focuses a crowd’s attention on political heavyweights like Prince Ranariddh, Prime Minister Hun Sen or SRP President Sam Rainsy.
“Based on what I have heard…it seems like Prince Ranariddh is more supported by…royalist voters,” said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development.
“For Cambodian voters they seem like they went through the good times and bad times with Prince Ranariddh, like a husband and wife…. So, they are very attached,” she said.
Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay told the few thousand on hand Thursday that Princess Arunrasmy, who is the wife of Funcinpec President Keo Puth Rasmey, was selected because she is the daughter of Retired King Norodom Sihanouk.
He also said that the princess would be able to attract more female voters to the party because she “is new, clean and was not stained with the past of Funcinpec, such as corruption.”
Funcinpec supporters at the congress appeared supportive of the princess’ candidacy, saying they believed that a woman candidate would draw strong support for the party.
Seng Sovann of Preah Vihear province joined Funcinpec in 1992 and lost his left leg fighting for the royalist cause in 1988. He said that party members believe that having a woman candidate was preferable to Prince Ranariddh returning to take the post.
“I like having a woman candidate because there has never been a woman leader before,” he said outside Chaktomuk Conference Hall on Thursday morning.
While political observers agreed that it was a positive step for any major party to put forward a female candidate, they questioned how likely it would be that voters would become acquainted enough with the princess by election time to have an impact on their votes.
“She can help the party by using her name as the daughter of the retired King,” said Puthea Hang, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections. He added, however, that the royal family doesn’t carry as much cache with voters as it used to.
Chea Vannath said that of the children of the retired King, Princess Arunrasmy—the youngest—is among the least well-known.
Hang Puthea agreed, saying: “She has weak points because constituents don’t know her very well yet.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay said by telephone Wednesday that the princess’ newness was a benefit after years under Prince Ranariddh’s leadership.
“We nominated her to boost the party’s popularity,” he said. “Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s popularity has declined since 1998 and 2003. The princess is new. Prince Ranariddh is the old thing—the new thing will be better.”
Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero added that Princess Arunrasmy has been touring the country for the past seven months, giving her lots of exposure with the voting public.
But Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that it is unlikely that Funcinpec—even with two radio stations at their disposal—will be able to sufficiently promote their new leadership ahead of an election only nine months away.
“For the commune election [voters] look at the candidates, but for the national election they look at the party leaders,” he said. “It is impossible to promote the new leadership among the people [in time],” he added.
Hang Puthea said this problem with Funcinpec’s leadership is not one that will be overcome by appointing a relative unknown as their candidate for premier.
“[The princess] cannot compete with the prime minister and Sam Rainsy, but besides her, no one is better,” Hang Puthea said. “The party has no choice.”
“[Funcinpec] might still have some seats,” following the election, Chea Vannath said.
“Not the same as they used to get in 2003 though—much, much less,” she added.
(Reporting by Yun Samean, John Maloy and Pin Sisovann)