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Royal Pain

A four-month government deadlock could make donors think twice, and the king is very unhappy.

By Bertil Lintner/PHNOM PENH

For decades, Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk has shared his most personal views in a regular bulletin distributed to court insiders. Now anybody can see what the 81-year-old monarch has to say, in French, at the details are not encouraging. Judging from the king's recent postings, there's no doubt that he is getting increasingly upset over Cambodia's continuing political stalemate.

Four months after the July 27 general election, no new government has been formed. A new national assembly has been sworn in but has yet to meet. The king, describing the situation on his Web site as "Kafkaesque," has threatened to abdicate and go abroad if there is no solution to the crisis.

This comes at the 10th anniversary of Cambodia's first general election in recent times, which followed a massive, UN-supported effort to establish a functioning multi-party democracy after decades of war, genocide and civil war. Even more tragically for Cambodia, the country is now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence, but the event has been overshadowed by seemingly endless political bickering.

The problem goes beyond the anger and frustration expressed by the king and by ordinary Cambodians. The country's donors may rethink their aid policies "if the country doesn't get its act together," says a diplomat who is closely involved with the political process in Cambodia.

In Washington, "the prolonged stalemate has hurt Cambodia in the U.S. foreign-aid budget process, where Cambodia has been at risk of slipping off the screen in recent years," says Catharin Dalpino, a former United States official who now teaches at Georgetown University.

However, Sam Rainsy, who leads one of the three parties vying for power, calls the stalemate "a blessing in disguise." Claiming that corruption prevents aid money from reaching the people who need it, he says: "Both donors and investors will have to reassess their image of Cambodia and reconsider what they're doing in the country." Belgium and the Netherlands have already suspended aid because of Cambodia's chronic lack of transparency and accountability.

The deadlock began with the July 27 election, where Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won 73 of the 123 seats in the national assembly, up from 64 in the previous election five years ago. But according to the constitution, a government must have support from two-thirds of the lawmakers, and the CPP is nine seats short. A new coalition government is needed, and that's where the problem lies.

Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh--one of Sihanouk's sons--saw its share of seats drop to 26 from 43. The third party to win seats, the Sam Rainsy Party, increased its share to 24 from 15. Funcinpec, the partner in the outgoing coalition, has been unwilling to give up its cabinet posts despite electoral losses that in many countries would see the resignation of the party leader.

Immediately after the election, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party challenged the results, but their complaints were rejected by the constitutional council. The king eventually intervened and on November 5 mediated an agreement between the three parties to form a coalition government.

But the parties still refuse talk to each other. After the agreement, much to the king's disappointment, Hun Sen sued Ranariddh for defamation after he indirectly linked the prime minister to the October 18 murder of Chuor Chetharith, an editor for a pro-Funcinpec radio station in Phnom Penh. Ranariddh has demanded that the lawsuit against him be dropped before there can be any more meetings of the three parties.

Even when--or if--a new government is formed, it's not expected to survive for more than a few months. For now at least, the Sam Rainsy Party says it is committed to holding things together "My party in the future coalition government will remain even stronger, as we will able to oppose the government's bad behaviour from within," says prominent party member Son Chhay.

As the political stalemate continues, the economy could go from bad to worse. The crucial garment industry, which accounted for 23% of exports in 2002, could collapse when the quota granted by the U.S. under the Multifibre Arrangement ends in 2005. Tourism was badly hurt by the Sars crisis. If the economy is dealt a serious blow in the midst of a severe political crisis, Cambodia's troubles could have consequences for the entire region.

Murray Hiebert in Washington contributed to this article

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December 04, 2003

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