Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

After Decades of Decline, the Royalist Funcinpec Party Hopes to Regain Some Influence

Funcinpec Party's president Norodom Chakravuth meets his supporters in Phnom Penh, July 12, 2023. (CamboJA/ Pring Samrang)
Funcinpec Party's president Norodom Chakravuth meets his supporters in Phnom Penh, July 12, 2023. (CamboJA/ Pring Samrang)

Once the largest political party in Cambodia, the royalist party Funcinpec has been unable to reverse its steep decline in votes and influence since 1993. With the Candlelight Party disqualified from the election, Funcinpec is the largest remaining party allowed to contest Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP. The party faces an uphill battle, having won only 1.27% of the vote in the communal elections last year and with all National Assembly seats currently held by the CPP. 

“Is there anyone here who owes money to the banks? Please raise your hand” Funcinpec spokesperson Nhoeurn Raden asked a modest crowd of supporters in Tbong Khmum Province on June 15th, according to a video of the event on Funcinpec’s Facebook page. Many hands in the audience went up.

“If you have an IDPoor card, raise your hand,” he continued, and again many hands went up. “His highness’ policy to fix your livelihood… isn’t to bring something and help pay off your debts. He will lower interest rates for those who owe the bank. Please give him a round of applause!”

Raden, who is not running as a candidate, does much of the public speaking at the campaign events featured on Funcinpec’s official Facebook page. Prince Norodom Chakravuth, 53, was elected president of the party in 2022 after his father Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s death in late 2021, engages in more personal interactions with his audience, often invoking his royal heritage.

A pro-Funcinpec car outside the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on July 12, 2023. (CamboJA/Daniel Zak)

At one June 25 rally, Chakravuth, who is also running as a Phnom Penh candidate, reminded supporters to vote for number nine, the party’s position on the ballot: “The number nine is very important, firstly because Samdech Krom Preah [Ranariddh] very much loved and liked the number nine.”

“The Funcinpec party will continue to cooperate with other political parties that love the nation, citizens, and keep the peace and engage in sustainable national and international politics,” he added.

On the campaign trail and in their advertisements, the party emphasises general policies to alleviate poverty, improve press freedom by passing a freedom of information law, and cracking down on corruption by reforming the court system, without further specifics. But most supporters know the party more from its historical importance. Much of the party’s rhetoric invokes the legacy of Prince Chakravuth’s grandfather and party founder, the charismatic and eccentric King Norodom Sihanouk, who is still widely revered in Cambodia.

Like father like son: Three generations of Funcinpec leaders. Norodom Sihanouk, Norodom Ranariddh, and Norodom Chakravuth (Wikimedia Commons, Facebook)

Funcinpec is a French acronym which translates to “National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia.” The group is a direct successor to King Sihanouk’s Popular Socialist Community, which ruled the country during its golden era from 1955 to 1970, until King Sihanouk was ousted in a coup. Eleven years later, while exiled in North Korea, he founded Funcinpec as an armed resistance movement, and it quickly became one of the main factions of the brutal Cambodian Civil War. Its main opponent was the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, a predecessor to today’s ruling CPP, controlled by Hun Sen from 1984 onwards.

Following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, a United Nations peace-keeping force took control of the country and called elections in 1993. Sihanouk’s son Ranariddh took over as Funcinpec’s leader and led the party in a UN election against the CPP, winning 58 seats to the CPP’s 51 seats — the only election where the CPP has received a minority of votes. But secessionist threats led to a power sharing agreement allowing for Hun Sen to serve as a co-prime minister until four years later, when Ranaraiddh was ousted from his post following an armed confrontation between the two parties. 

“We gave them our trust, but they didn’t deliver,” said 51-year-old Phnom Penh businesswoman Sokunthi, who voted for Funcinpec in 1993, but now votes for CPP. “[Prince Chakravuth] is very knowledgeable and loves the country and its citizens. But we haven’t seen any work or accomplishments. We’re waiting to see how serious he is.”

She added that she does not think Funcinpec has much of a chance of getting many votes, because unlike the CPP they do not build markets and factories which people can see.

A Funcinpec rally in Kampong Thom (From Funcinpec’s official Facebook page)

Funcinpec has fared worse and worse in the elections. The party currently holds two of the 62 Cambodian Senate seats, still enough to make it the second largest party represented. Out of 11,622 communal council positions last year, the party won only 19 seats, mostly in Kampong Thom province.

“Funcinpec’s poor performance in the 2022 commune election… makes it clear that it does not threaten the CPP’s grip on power; and nor do the other parties that were allowed to compete in the upcoming polls,” Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told CamboJA in a statement. 

She said that Candlelight was the only opposition party which posed a “credible challenge” to the ruling CPP. Despite 17 other parties competing on the ballot, “the reality is that the CPP will virtually be running unchallenged,” she added.

In 2017, Funcinpec was one among the parties which filed lawsuits against the leading opposition CNRP alleging that it had committed treason, resulting in its court-ordered dissolution. When asked about his party’s relationship with the ruling CPP, Raden told CamboJA that Funcinpec has a policy of “cooperation with all parties that support Cambodia.”

Though the Candlelight Party alleged electoral fraud and a later Human Rights Watch investigation found ‘irregularities’ in the 2022 Communal Elections, Funcinpec said the party did not experience any problems.

“Funcinpec believes that the election will be free and fair and the results will be positive for the party,” the party’s spokesperson Nhoeurn Raden said in a written statement. 

“The tears and cries of the Cambodian people continue unabated due to the injustices of the courts and the abuse by some powerful and wealthy people,” Raden added, without specifying further. “Funcinpec is committed to protecting justice for the people by reforming the judiciary to be independent and to truly respect its profession based on the principles of common law.”

A Funcinpec member hands out flyers to motorists near Central Market on July 14. Nearby, a tuk tuk decorated with party flags plays music reminiscent of the Sihanouk era. (Daniel Zak/CamboJA) 

The party has not elaborated on how it would seek to reform the judiciary. But the party has outlined some more specific policies such as raising the minimum wage, free consultations and treatments at public hospitals, the construction of homes for the elderly and a monthly pension of 200,000 riel ($49) for those over 65 years old. Everyday economic issues like these make up most of their platform.

“I’ve been to provinces, and I’ve found that people are so miserable,” Prince Chakravuth told CamboJA. He said that he had met many Cambodians who had graduated with masters degrees or even PHDs, but were unable to find work. “Then, with master’s degrees, are you going to wash dishes?” 

He said that under his grandfather Sihanouk, there were efforts to ensure that there were industries located in the country which could accommodate educated workers. As it stands, he says those types of students have to go to Thailand or even further abroad. He said he was “sorry to say” that this applied even to himself, who spent about half of his life in France. 

However, he also mentioned the useful influence his time in France had in shaping his ideas. 

“I’m from France. We go to hospital free of charge. Medicines are free as well as doctor’s consultation is free,” he said, and explained that Cambodia should emulate the medical systems of some more developed countries. “Why could France make it? Why could Obama create Obamacare? Why not us?”

The party also calls for increasing women’s inclusion in politics, but only 5% of its listed candidates are women, according to the Kamnotra database. Raden acknowledged that this was a small percentage, but said that in the future the number would go up, and emphasised Funcinpec’s belief in the importance of women’s empowerment.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ Chak Sopheap said that she believed Funcinpec raised legitimate issues that the government should address, even if the party remained vague about how it would address issues like court reform. 

At its core, Funcinpec’s appeal to potential voters is its royalist connections. While in neighbouring Thailand, voters seem to have shown a decreasing amount of trust in the monarchy, Nhoeurn told CamboJA that Cambodians could still look favourably on the royal family as a source of stability.

“After the fall of the monarchy, the whole of Cambodia erupted into war,” he said. “Cambodia suffered. The national economy collapsed, millions of people were killed.”

The party’s headquarters, surrounded by yellow Funcinpec flags, is in a former French fine dining restaurant reportedly frequented by Cambodian royals. From morning until early evening each day of the July campaign period, a speaker plays recorded speeches and royalist music loud enough to be heard from the other side of the block.

A poster featuring Prince Norodom Chakravuth, the new face of Funcinpec since his father’s death, on July 12, 2023. (CamboJA/Daniel Zak)

On an afternoon in early July, Saravan, a tuk-tuk driver who was parked in front of the building long enough to hear much of the party’s platform through the speaker, said that Funcinpec’s ideas sounded good to him, but that he still planned to vote for the CPP.

“I don’t understand much about politics,” he said. “But the current party has been in power so long that they gained my trust.

(Additional reporting from Uon Chhin)