They stood side by side like old friends in front of the world’s press—the deposed prime minister and the finance minister he once fired. First party colleagues, then bitter rivals and now allies once again, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy stood united against a common adversary Tuesday.
Claiming vote-counting fraud, Funcinpec’s Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy, head of the self-named opposition party, vowed Tuesday on the prince’s front porch that they would not form a coalition government with the CPP unless they get new elections in disputed areas.
If they stick together, the two parties’ combined strength could keep the new parliament from meeting and deny the CPP the ability to form a government, if early figures indicating a CPP victory hold true.
If they stick together, they could throw Cambodia into a constitutional crisis that diplomats and analysts say might require King Norodom Sihanouk’s intervention.
But the track record of Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy sticking together is not good.
Analysts say the two men’s acrimonious history, along with what is expected to be intense pressure from diplomats and the King, will almost certainly cause Funcinpec to break away and form another coalition with the CPP, perhaps in exchange for some key ministries and a promise of the crown for Prince Ranariddh.
“Anything can happen, but I don’t think it will last very long,” one Asian diplomat said of the parties’ rejection of a coalition.
Cambodian political analyst Kao Kim Hourn said the repercussions of a coalition boycott are staggering because Cambodia’s constitution simply does not address what happens if no parties can muster the required two-thirds vote necessary to form a government.
“If they stay together, we may have a constitutional crisis,” said Kao Kim Hourn, head of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
Refusal to form a coalition would be problematic, the Asian diplomat agreed. “We would go back to square one,” he said. “I don’t think it will come to that, though….I don’t think those two can work together.”
Named finance minister after the 1993 elections, Sam Rainsy lasted only a year on the job before being stripped of his portfolio in an October 1994 Cabinet shakeup.
Reports at the time suggested that the former Paris financier, though praised throughout Southeast Asia for his reformist stance, was seen by the government as personally too difficult to work with and too strident in his criticism of corruption.
Prince Ranariddh, who at the time was still first prime minister in a coalition government co-headed by the CPP’s Hun Sen, was said to particularly dislike Sam Rainsy’s crusading, headline-grabbing style.
And he expressed as much in early 1995 after ex-minister Sam Rainsy took it upon himself to urge foreign donors to make aid money contingent on government reform.
“I am sorry he is a Khmer. I am sorry he is a member of parliament. I am sorry he is a member of Funcinpec,” Prince Ranariddh said of Sam Rainsy on March 21, 1995.
Two months later, two of the prince’s wishes were granted. Sam Rainsy was no longer a member of Funcinpec, nor of parliament. He was booted out of the party in early May 1995, with the prince’s support, and then from the National Assembly after Funcinpec said the seat belonged to the party, not the person occupying it.
A defiant Sam Rainsy launched his own party in late 1995 and immediately became the government’s No 1 critic.
But after the shaky CPP-Funcinpec coalition began to deteriorate in 1996, Prince Ranariddh began to eye his one-time subordinate in a new light. In early 1997, Funcinpec formed the National United Front, which included Sam Rainsy’s party, with an eye to excluding the CPP after this year’s elections.
Then, after the coalition collapsed amid violence last year and Prince Ranariddh was ousted as first premier, Sam Rainsy and the prince became even closer, criss-crossing the world to drum up support from the international community for pressure on Hun Sen’s new-look government.
But the alliance has been rocky. Sam Rainsy in May said Prince Ranariddh gave up too much for too little when the prince cut a separate deal with Hun Sen to end an opposition boycott in the Assembly.
Prince Ranariddh reportedly took offense, and aides say the two men had not met face-to-face for two months before the elections.
On Tuesday, though, Sam Rainsy stood by his former boss.
“Prince Ranariddh is entitled to be the next prime minister, not Hun Sen,” he said in the joint press conference.
The prince, who frequently refers to his adversaries as “Mr,” on Tuesday called Sam Rainsy “ek udom” (Excellency) and at one point touched him on the shoulder.
The two parties are already coming under heavy pressure from the international community to accept the results and cut a deal to avoid more instability and possible fighting, several diplomats said.
If there is a prolonged standoff, King Sihanouk might be called upon to mediate.
“That’s why I think the King was invited to stick around by diplomats,” one Western legal observer said.
And the King will likely take a dim view of Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy taking a hard-line against the CPP, given last July’s events. “I don’t think he would advise that,” the Asian diplomat said.
More likely, analysts said, would be for Funcinpec to form a coalition in exchange for a few key ministries and a face-saving place for the prince.
Sam Rainsy’s camp seemed well aware Tuesday of the likelihood that Prince Ranariddh could cut his own deal.
“We…must be aware that Samdech Krom Preah can be fooled by the ruling party,” said Son Chhay, an SRP candidate in Siem Reap.
“More likely, he will change his mind to join with the CPP in accepting the position as chairman of National Assembly and stay on a couple years working to become the crown prince and then retire as King of Cambodia,” Son Chhay said.
Still, Son Chhay expressed cautious hope that this time, it would be different.
“He is very, very committed at this time to stick together,” Son Chhay said of the prince.