Funcinpec opened its Extraordinary National Congress Monday at the Olympic Stadium with blue and gold streamers, over 400 singers, drummers, apsara dancers and about 4,500 bedazzled Funcinpec officials-mostly commune councilors from far-flung provinces.
Independence Day may have attracted more onlookers, but the Funcinpec congress outmatched it by far in pomp and circumstance as the assembled thousands chanted “Funcinpec! Funcinpec!” following the lead of party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and a line of chorus girls.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose CPP forces vanquished troops loyal to Funcinpec and deposed then-first Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh in 1997, was the guest of honor and keynote speaker at the event.
He praised the prince profusely and argued that the CPP-Funcinpec coalition would strengthen the country and provide the political stability necessary for development and economic prosperity.
“Being a very faithful partner, the CPP wishes Funcinpec all the best,” Hun Sen said, emphasizing the importance of “mixed leadership, national reconciliation and a stable monarchy.”
Appearing more relaxed and in higher spirits than in recent public appearances, Hun Sen also said that the CPP would support Prince Ranariddh as prime minister if Funcinpec were to win national elections in 2008.
“The CPP would form a coalition government with Funcinpec headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh,” the premier said.
Political observers see a Funcinpec victory at the polls as highly unlikely.
Other high-level CPP officials in attendance included Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum.
Prince Ranariddh, not to be outmatched by the premier’s flattery, in turn lavished praise on Hun Sen and his partnership with the CPP.
“If the CPP wins the elections, Funcinpec and I support Samdech Hun Sen to be prime minister,” Ranariddh pledged, flanked by co-Minister of Defense Nhiek Bun Chhay and co-Minister of Interior Prince Norodom Sirivudh.
“Only the cooperation of CPP and Funcinpec can assure stability and development,” he added.
The festivities, however, did not include the Sam Rainsy Party, and Prince Ranariddh used the podium to take swipes at the opposition.
He boasted that breaking the Alliance of Democrats, formed between Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party after the July 2003 election to force the CPP into a tripartite coalition, was a wise move that had gained the royalist party high-level official appointments.
“Sam Rainsy made wrong decisions that have left his party members jobless,” Prince Ranariddh told his followers.
He also blasted the opposition leader for criticizing the status quo in Cambodia, and accused Sam Rainsy of pushing foreign governments to cut aid.
“Funcinpec will never do anything that brings suffering to the people,” he said.
Prince Ranariddh also praised Hun Sen for allowing him to appoint defectors from the Sam Rainsy Party to government positions.
In a speech that stretched over hours, the prince also stated that the controversial additional agreement to the 1985 border treaty would not cost Cambodia any loss of territory.
He claimed he had chosen not be considered for King so that he could retain leadership over Funcinpec, and discouraged his officials from granting interviews to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
“Today’s congress is a great achievement,” he declared. “I will lead Funcinpec to another victory.”
Commune councilors, clad in matching Funcinpec T-shirts and baseball caps and most in for a rare visit to Phnom Penh, were clearly impressed by the spectacle, many arguing that it showed the might of their party.
“This congress is very big, bigger than I expected,” said Meas Neang, a commune councilor from Kdei village in Kompong Thom province’s Stung Sen district.
“It encourages me, stirs my spirit,” he said, adding that a strong ruling coalition spelled trouble for the opposition.
“The Sam Rainsy Party has no hope,” he said. “The leader has left the country and the supporters feel cold.”
Em Yeng, councilor for Srang commune in Kompong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district, also said he was wowed by the spectacle.
But unlike Prince Ranariddh, he said he believed that Funcinpec had little chance of besting the CPP at the polls.
“I do not expect Funcinpec will ever beat the CPP, because the CPP has strong roots at the village level,” he said.
He nonetheless added that the cooperation between the two parties was very reassuring, especially considering how fraught with danger relations were less than 10 years ago.
“His speech makes us feel safe and trust each other,” he said of the premier’s keynote address, explaining that open debate-undreamed of in years past-was now possible between members of Funcinpec and the CPP.
It was a sentiment others echoed, with apparently clear memories of the threat the CPP had posed to them in the not-so-distant past.
Opposition lawmakers and political observers stressed that it was not the regalia of a congress that would determine who would retain power in coming years, but election results at the polls. “It’s based on their performance at the grassroots level,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, referring to future election results.
“The ceremony, the party, won’t help at all,” she said.
And while she said the CPP-Funcinpec coalition could perhaps be beneficial for the country, she warned that there also needed to be room for a vibrant opposition.
“It’s common sense and a principle of democracy,” she added.
Opposition parliamentarian Yim Sovann was more strident in his criticism of the CPP-Funcinpec coalition and its prospects in future elections.
“The people think the coalition between the CPP and Funcinpec has not improved their living conditions, reduced poverty or curbed corruption,” he said. “The only choice for the future for them is the Sam Rainsy Party.”
He also said that while the opposition recognizes the right of its members to defect to other parties, he expects more defections of lower-ranking Funcinpec officials to the opposition than vice-versa.
“I think the congress doesn’t matter,” he said. “The people will tell you in the local elections in 2007 and the national elections in 2008.”