Prince Norodom Ranariddh returned to Cambodia over the weekend and called for mass defections from Funcinpec to his proposed new Norodom Ranariddh Party.
After arriving in Phnom Penh on Saturday, the prince met with reporters Sunday and dismissed allegations that he pocketed millions of dollars from selling Funcinpec’s headquarters in November 2005.
“I appeal to Funcinpec members across the country who are loyal to me to prepare themselves to be ready to be members of the Ranariddh party,” he told reporters at New World restaurant in Daun Penh district, shortly before leaving to rally supporters in the provinces.
Prince Ranariddh accused the Interior Ministry of blocking the establishment of his party and urged Cambodians and the international community to push for its registration.
“If the commune election doesn’t have the Norodom Ranariddh Party, we cannot regard the election as free and fair,” he said.
The Interior Ministry has said it has been unable to register the party because Prince Ranariddh has not yet signed off on the relevant paperwork.
Prince Ranariddh’s return came three days after Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay filed a lawsuit against him at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The complaint accuses the prince of fraud and demands the return of $3.6 million from the sale of Funcinpec’s headquarters and an additional $1 million in damages.
Prince Ranariddh denied the allegation Sunday, saying it was politically motivated.
“Nhiek Bun Chhay has a political objective to prevent me from forming a new party and he defamed me. As a victim, I will file a counter lawsuit,” he said.
Prince Ranariddh said he was not involved in the sale, which he said was conducted by Funcinpec’s congress. He added that he did not receive the proceeds of the sale.
“I didn’t breach the party’s trust and I didn’t act myself to sell and buy the location,” he said.
Prince Ranariddh confirmed that he has agreed to form a political alliance with Prince Sisowath Thomico of the Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party.
“[Prince Thomico] has given me the president position of his party,” Prince Ranariddh said, adding that he has not yet decided whether to accept.
Prince Ranariddh, who left Cambodia in early October, said he now plans to remain in the country “long-term.”
Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero said he was not concerned by Prince Ranariddh’s call for defections.
“Supporters still stay with Funcinpec,” he said. “The party’s members have lost confidence in Prince Norodom Ranariddh…. The leader led Funcinpec to collapse.”
The party has 1.3 million members nationwide but only 15 percent of these are Prince Ranariddh loyalists, he said.
Keo Puth Rasmey, who replaced Prince Ranariddh as Funcinpec president Oct 18, has already visited constituencies in 14 provinces and municipalities to rally supporters, Nouv Sovathero said.
National Assembly and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin said he did not envision the CPP ever forming a coalition with the prince’s new party.
“I don’t think that the Prince Norodom Ranariddh Party will get enough seats to form a coalition,” he said. He pointed out, however, that the prince’s activities demonstrate that Cambodia is a multiparty democracy.
Prince Thomico said that, although Prince Ranariddh has not yet agreed to accept the SJF presidency, the pair can still work together.
“Prince Norodom Ranariddh has potential popularity among the people,” Prince Thomico said.
It is too early to say whether the prince’s new party could compete with the SRP, Funcinpec and the CPP, said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
Although Prince Ranariddh’s popularity has waned in recent years, he still enjoys support in the provinces due to his father, retired King Norodom Sihanouk, Koul Panha said.
“The people in the provinces believe in the King,” Koul Panha said. “Prince Norodom Ranariddh needs more time to build his party’s infrastructure.”