As Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated his 30th anniversary as Cambodia’s leader last month, another renowned figure raised a glass to his re-entrance to the political arena. At his luxury Phnom Penh villa, Prince Norodom Ranariddh announced his intention to return to his position as leader of the royalist Funcinpec party.
Ranariddh’s name dots the pages of Cambodian history books. The son of King Norodom Sihanouk, he was influential in the royalist resistance after the Lon Nol coup in 1970 and was elected co-prime minister in the country’s first democratic election more than two decades later. His name, however, has also been derided by many commentators who claim he has always been an ineffective leader.
In 1991, Ranariddh assumed the leadership of Funcinpec from his father. “He was thrown into a political career for which he lacked either the aptitude or the political instincts,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of the recently published book Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
Over the years, Strangio added, Ranariddh has thrown away his political capital as the son of Sihanouk by enriching himself by any means and by failing to deliver much of any substance to ordinary Cambodians.
Although his Funcinpec party claimed victory in Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993, they did so two seats shy of an absolute majority, forcing Ranariddh to establish a dual-power agreement with the leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Hun Sen.
It was an uneasy coalition, and Ranariddh was more absorbed with the pomp and ceremony of office than with the true substance of leadership. “Diplomats compared him unfavourably to Hun Sen, who was focused, hard-working and well-briefed,” said Strangio. “Ranariddh’s office resembled a miniature royal court. He has always delighted in the deference of others.”
Hun Sen took advantage of Ranariddh’s faults – even provoking Ranariddh into calling himself a “puppet prime minister” – and in July 1997 he was ousted following violent factional fighting.
After a brief period of self-imposed exile, Ranariddh returned to Cambodia to continue leadership of Funcinpec, but in 2006 he was voted out of the party. A year later he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $150,000 for selling Funcinpec’s Phnom Penh headquarters. He and other party officials were accused of using the money to pay off personal debts, although Ranariddh was later pardoned for the crime.
After last month’s announcement, Ranariddh said this would be a fresh start. However, not everyone shares his optimism. “He has huge self-confidence despite his grave limitations as a modern political leader,” said Dr Markus Karbaum, an independent consultant specialising in Cambodian politics.
The Kingdom’s next general election in 2018 is expected to be focused on the CPP and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – in other words, between Hun Sen and the CNRP’s leader Sam Rainsy.
“In this tapered political atmosphere small parties will face even greater difficulties to attract attention,” Karbaum commented, adding that Funcinpec’s political prospects would be weakened even further since its raison d’etre has always been to preserve the monarchy.
“In France, people brought the king to be beheaded in 1789. The monarchy ended,” Ranariddh told journalists last month, adding that only Funcinpec and the CPP can ensure the preservation of the monarchy.
However, as Karbaum noted, should Funcinpec suffer a poor performance at the next general election, Ranariddh risks embarrassing the monarchy and the king. “Then he would have achieved the complete opposite of what he wanted to,” Karbaum said. “If he really wants to preserve the monarchy he must abandon politics instantly.”