Founded in 1981 by then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (Funcinpec) won a majority in the general election in 1993, under the auspices and supervision of the United Nations. However its power base and political relevance have been shrinking since 1997 after violent clashes between Funcinpec and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which led to the ouster of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the first prime minister, from power.
Intra-party politics and power struggles are the main causes explaining the downfall of the party. The first round of tensions took place after the general election 1993 when Prince Norodom Chakrapong abandoned Prince Ranariddh. In the following years, there were several episodes of infighting within the party. In 2006, Prince Ranariddh was expelled from the party by his own clique, including royal family members, under the leadership of Nheak Bunchay.
After a short period of self-proclaimed absence from politics, Prince Ranariddh re-emerged later under the Khmer National Front Party which promptly changed its name to Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP) in 2006 and appointed Prince Ranariddh as its president.
In the 2008 general election, the party won two seats and went into an alliance with three others, Sam Rainsy Party, Funcinpec and Human Rights Party, which together won 33 seats. Sam Rainsy Party, Human Rights Party and Norodom Ranariddh Party then threatened to boycott the first parliamentary session, claiming the general election was rigged. Prime Minister Hun Sen retaliated by saying if that was the case, the opposition’s seats would be redistributed between CPP and Funcinpec.
Ranariddh failed to merge the NRP and Funcinpec, and retired again, but in March 2014 resurfaced to launch the Community of Royalist People’s Party (CRPP).
In January 2015, Ranariddh dissolved the CRPP and returned to Funcinpec. He was subsequently re-elected to the Funcinpec presidency after a big loss and humiliation in the 2013 general election where the party did not get any seat for the first time since 1993.
In the latest episode, four senior members who reportedly held the Funcinpec ‘fort’ while the prince was incapacitated – following a fatal car accident that also killed his wife – were dismissed from the party. Power play again reared its ugly head and the knives were sharpened for a slaughter in the feud between the modernists in the party and the outdated “monarchists and Sihanoukists” – scions who still reminisce of their days of royal glory.
Their dismissal was attributed partly to Funcinpec’s bad performance in the 2018 general election. Some rumors of an internal political coup and foul play related to the traffic accident involving Prince Ranariddh’s convoy in June this year, leading to the death of his wife, Princess Ouk Phalla, and severe injuries to the prince have been circulating. The police rejected the rumours calling it purely an accident, in a bid to clear the air and put forward that it was the prince’s sheer bad luck and not a Brutus-kind of conniving to stick a knife into Ranariddh’s back.
Currently, the political life of Funcinpec is hanging on a piece of thread. Now the son of Prince Ranariddh, Prince Norodom Chakravuth, a novice in politics, has taken the helm of the party leadership, amidst internal protests and uncertainties. Another internal coup might happen if the powerbase of Prince Chakravuth is not strong and resilient enough.
It needs to be noted that, Cambodian politics is pretty much about personalities and leadership traits than institutional policy. The overwhelming popularity of Prince Sihanouk was the key factor which led to the victory of Funcinpec in the 1993 elections. After his abdication in 2004 due to poor health, King Sihanouk became much less politically engaged in national reconciliation and state building.
Funcinpec will cease to be relevant if there are no charismatic leaders who could rejuvenate, reinvent and revive the party leadership structure to resonate with the general public. Gone are the days when Funcinpec could bask in its days of glory with King Sihanouk at its helm. Sad to say, it could now be relegated to the country’s history books if the current state of affairs continue on in the party.
Moving forward, the party must overhaul its whole structure, particularly its leadership and develop its own unique political doctrine and ideology. Since the general election in 2013, the political dynamics and landscape in Cambodia have been evolving into two main poles competing for power supremacy: the establishment led by the CPP and the opposition or resistance movement led by the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Funcinpec is structurally forced to develop its own strategy to gain popular support from both camps.
Leadership is the competitive advantage of party policy. Leadership traits and values, and personalities of leaders matter the most. Funcinpec can restart its future now, by overcoming the legacy trap and moving forward with a new vision and leadership. To be a credible and relevant political party, Funcinpec must absolutely stay neutral and find a middle ground to strengthen national reconciliation.
As Rudyard Kipling put it: “If you can walk with kings and yet not lose your common touch, then yours is the world and everything that’s in it.”