The race to the July national election is on, and no competitor looks like they have more to lose than Funcinpec.
Hit hard by a split in the royalist vote following the recent formation of the Norodom Ranariddh Party and still trying to recover from a dismal showing in 2007’s commune elections, the junior partner in government has lately been suffering a string of high-level defections to the ruling CPP.
Among others, the party has already lost two ministers, as well as all five of its secretaries and undersecretaries of state at the Finance Ministry. Those losses were followed last week by claims from Prime Minister Hun Sen that more Funcinpec ministers and secretaries of state are poised to join his CPP juggernaut.
But despite all this, Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay remains confident that his party can still rise to the occasion and will retain a solid footing in the National Assembly following the July polls.
In a recent interview at Funcinpec’s Phnom Penh headquarters, Nhiek Bun Chhay said that 60 to 70 percent of those who abandoned his party for the NRP had already returned—a much-needed revitalization that he said would bring the party 15 or 16 Assembly seats at election time.
Nhiek Bun Chhay said that the mass return of Funcinpec members was revealed through an update of the party’s membership list made since last April’s commune election.
The list update was made possible by an extensive reform of the party’s activist structure nationwide, he said.
“Before, they didn’t understand our reform process. But now they do, so they have returned,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said, adding that Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s lengthy absence from the country has benefited Funcinpec’s cause.
If correct, the return of royalist supporters would be a boon to Funcinpec, a party for which the next national election increasingly looks like a last stand.
According to the US-based International Republican Institute, which works on political party development in Cambodia, if vote tallies in the 2008 national election mimic those of the 2007 commune election, Funcinpec will win only a single parliamentary seat for Kompong Thom province. And that IRI prediction was based on figures from well before the recent string of defections to the CPP.
Nhiek Bun Chhay downplayed the possible impact of the recent defections, saying that they might take a bit of financial clout with them but not much in the way of popular support for Funcinpec.
“Those defectors, they have money but they were not going out to the grassroots to campaign,” he said, adding: “To have kept them would not have benefited the party.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay also predicted that more of his party’s officials will flee to other parties, but he was confident that Funcinpec’s remaining ministers would stay on board.
He also reiterated his claim that those who defected to the ruling party were in reality opportunists from outside the old Funcinpec family. These opportunists had used gifts and favors to ply Prince Ranariddh for positions when the prince led the party, he said.
Opportunists and Prince Ranariddh, Nhiek Bun Chhay said, were to blame for the party’s decline since taking the majority of seats in the UN-organized 1993 election. Under the prince’s leadership, he said, the party lost track of its base, namely those who had fought for the royalist side on the Thai border during the turbulent years of conflict in the 1980s.
“During the decline following the victory in 1993, Funcinpec abandoned former fighters from the borders,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “[W]e recruited new people…and some of these new people aren’t loyal to the party and don’t work hard.”
The party is now trying to reach out to those old royalist fighters in order to generate a party leadership that is strongly entrenched in Funcinpec’s old guard, he said.
Though that move could be politically risky if viewed by voters as a backward glance at a time when minds are on the party’s future, Nhiek Bun Chhay—who commanded about half of Funcinpec’s troops during the 1980s—said it would serve to consolidate the party.
He also insisted that the recent defections have not damaged Funcinpec’s partnership with the CPP, even though the ruling party has not allowed its junior partner to replace those departed officials with new Funcinpec members.
This obvious breakdown of the 2004 power-sharing agreement between the two parties Nhiek Bun Chhay blamed on Prince Ranariddh. The agreement was terminated, he said, when the prince in March 2006 backed the constitutional amendment changing the number of lawmakers required to form a government from two-thirds of the Assembly to a simple majority.
“Prince Ranariddh didn’t consult with us before making this decision,” he said, adding that it is now impossible for Funcinpec to demand the continuation of the 2004 quota system of government officials from both parties.
“We have discussed this a lot, but the CPP has said the agreement is already annulled, so we cannot discuss it further,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
Being a junior partner in government has also compromised Funcinpec’s campaigning efforts. Holding a place in government makes it nearly impossible to campaign in a tone critical of the government.
CPP politicians, however, frequently tell voters that the way to guarantee more roads, schools and hospitals is to vote for the CPP, even though the responsible ministries—Public Works, Rural Development, Education and Health—are all headed by Funcinpec ministers.
Nhiek Bun Chhay said he has met with Hun Sen, who has told him that Funcinpec is free to say while campaigning that it is responsible for 50 percent of development given its partnership with the CPP.
Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said recently that Funcinpec could not claim credit for 50 percent of the government’s achievements.
“Almost all developments were accomplished by the CPP,” he said, adding that the CPP is intent on maintaining its partnership with Funcinpec per the 2004 agreement, but that quotas on positions are a thing of the past.
“We have stopped talking about the quotas,” he said.
So why doesn’t Funcinpec leave the government and appeal to voters with a new image solely its own?
“If we pull out, the environment will change towards political instability. The important thing is peace and political stability and security. People can blame us,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “We have experienced the events of July 1997. When we announced [our intention to] pull out there was a problem. Our policy is national reconciliation.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay also addressed a rumor that has dogged him since the factional fighting of 1997 and picked up steam following the ouster of Prince Ranariddh: that he was actively working for the CPP.
He strongly dismissed the rumor as political propaganda that has merely become a favorite of other parties, and vowed once again that he would never leave Funcinpec, which he joined in 1981.
“I would like to declare that I won’t defect to the CPP or any other political party,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said.
“Five thousand royalists died and 7 to 8,000 were injured [fighting in the 1980s] and I cannot betray them. I will stay here until I die.”