Despite year of drama, Cambodia’s political scene flips back to square one

After a year of drama and intrigue, a coalition deal snared at the weekend allows Cambodia’s politicians to get back to work but the power balance has barely changed, diplomats and analysts say.

A deal between Prime Minister Hun Sen and his coalition partner in two previous administrations, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was snared Friday, finally paving the way for a government 11 months after national elections.

With a new government expected to be formed early July, barring last-minute hiccups, a working parliament can finally pass crucial mothballed legislation, including ratification of entry into the World Trade Organisation and a bill to allow the procedure of a UN-backed trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

But when asked how Cambodians felt about the breakthrough, Hang Puthea, director of an election monitoring group, said they had almost lost interest.

"People are tired of listening to this problem, but thanks to this situation people may think more carefully about voting in the next elections."

The period has boasted endless snarling among political parties, bizarre jet-setting around the globe by leaders aimed at winning international support for their stances plus the self-imposed exile of a sulking king.

King Norodom Sihanouk spirited himself away to a palace in North Korea to wait out the crisis, from where he chimed into debate by posting comments on his website and insisted he would not return until a government was formed.

Donors to the aid-dependent country — one of the poorest in the world — have looked on askance while observers have grown so perplexed by the behind-the-scenes deal making that most stopped speculating on any outcome.

The essential result however sees Cambodia’s new government return to its make-up prior to the July 2003 polls, although minor surprises may still occur before the final sealing of the coalition deal slated for this week.

As in previous coalition deals, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has emerged the victor, this time securing an extra three ministries at the expense of Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC, which fared dismally in the polls.

The control of ministries and receiving the perks attached to them is important in infamously corrupt Cambodia, and the issue of who would get what formed the focus of intense bargaining, according to diplomats.

"It was a two-pronged approach. While the parties working groups were openly discussing forming a government, they were definitely working secretly on this big issue," one envoy told AFP.

A 73-point joint political platform meanwhile took up weeks of negotiating, with party officials shuffling forwards — and then backwards — on a day-to-day basis.

The final power split does reflect the election results, which saw the CPP scoop 73 of the 123 national assembly seats, leaving it just nine short of the the two-thirds majority it required under the constitution to govern alone.

That left it hostage to the royalists and the outspoken opposition Sam Rainsy Party, who formed a surprise alliance in the wake of the polls. It was dealt a blow however when Ranariddh struck a sudden March deal with Hun Sen to tentatively revive their partnership.

Under that deal, the royalists can give the opposition party some of its own posts, creating a "two-and-a-half party" government. FUNCINPEC’s decision on whether it will actually hand over posts remains a major question for now.

"Despite the months of negotiations, effectively it’s a deal between the same two parties with Rainsy possibly left out in the cold again," another Asian diplomat told AFP.

However, he insisted Hun Sen, an ex-Khmer Rouge fighter and so-called "strong man" of Cambodia, would emerge winning plaudits from the international community for the peaceful resolution of the stalemate, despite taking a long time to achieve it.

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