It came as a surprise to many.
Only a day after dismissing the possibility of a coalition deal with dissident Sam Rainsy, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed his old adversary join him and the royalist Funcinpec party in a three-way government.
The plan received the blessing of King Norodom Sihanouk, who saw it as a way to reconcile the three parties, Hun Sen proudly told reporters.
But others expressed less optimism, saying the plan amounted to a disaster for democracy.
“It’s not a good idea at all to have a government with all parties,” said Peter Schier, of the pro-democracy Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “In a good democracy, you need a strong opposition.”
Some analysts speculated that Hun Sen’s intention was to remove opposition and neutralize troublesome adversaries.
But others read deeper into the second prime minister’s motives, viewing the offer as a ploy to appear conciliatory, while knowing the offer would be rejected.
“I consider it unlikely that Rainsy would agree to join the coalition,” said one Western political analyst. “He would find it very difficult to accept to be in a government led by someone whom he has repeatedly attacked and accused of very serious crimes.”
“It may well have been a calculation that the CPP made,” he said. “They can appear to offer the world when really they are giving him nothing. There are no rich pickings for him in this deal.”
In a statement Thursday, Sam Rainsy said it was too early to discuss a coalition deal before the release of official election results. But without mentioning Hun Sen’s proposition, Sam Rainsy hinted at his opposition to a national government, saying his party’s goal was “democracy, not a power-sharing agreement.”
When preliminary results began to indicate a CPP victory, Sam Rainsy and his opposition ally, Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, teamed up to cry foul and demand an investigation into alleged electoral fraud. The distribution of parliamentary seats is yet to be calculated, but one fact is clear: Only a combination of Funcinpec and CPP seats can achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to control the National Assembly.
“It’s obvious there can only be a coalition between CPP and Funcinpec,” Schier said. “Funcinpec now really has an obligation to enter into the coalition. The voter has spoken and you have to respect the voter. The irregularities they are complaining of will not change the outcome of the elections very much.”
And while the CPP’s proposal is “a high demand,” he said, it is likely just the beginning of a lengthy bargaining process that may last until the deadline for a new government expires.
“It’s going to be a long bargaining process,” said the Western analyst. “They have two months to play with and no party is in any particular hurry.”
Cambodian analyst Kao Kim Hourn agreed that Funcinpec’s most likely next move will be to draw up a list of demands to counter Hun Sen’s offer.
“I don’t think they will give away all their rights,” he said. “They don’t want to walk into a tiger’s cage without a club and with an empty stomach. They will negotiate. This statement is the first step in a bargaining process that will go on until the next government is formed.”
And Funcinpec’s relative success in the poll puts them in a reasonable position to press for concessions—a factor the CPP likely took into account when making the offer, Schier said. “You enter a coalition discussion with your highest demand,” he said. “It’s like when you are at the market; you don’t tell the vendor the price you are prepared to pay.”
One likely demand is for an enhanced position for Prince Ranariddh, who may find it hard to accept the position of an ordinary member of parliament or a lesser minister, observers said.
“They may ask for the National Assembly chairmanship for Prince Ranariddh,” said an Asian diplomat. “That would give him some status.” Other demands might center on control of some of the more important ministries, which Hun Sen has already proposed to take for the CPP.
But others were pessimistic about Funcinpec’s leverage. “I don’t know what they can ask for that they can get,” said the Western analyst. “Their biggest weapon is their threat to boycott the Assembly. But realistically, that’s not tenable in the long term. Effectively, they are going to be a fairly emasculated partner.”