January 5, 2015 / 12:06 PM / 3 years ago

Cambodia's political prince makes comeback, claims PM's support

Prince Norodom Ranariddh arrives during news conference at his residence in Phnom Penh January 5, 2015.Samrang Pring

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia's Prince Norodom Ranariddh returned on Monday to lead a party that ditched him eight years ago, in a comeback aimed at reviving royalist support to sway a 2018 election expected to be the country's closest yet.

The son of the influential late monarch Norodom Sihanouk and half-brother of the current King Norodom Sihamoni has had a turbulent political career.

He was overthrown as co-prime minister in a bloody 1997 coup, and nine years later forced out of Funcinpec, the party his father founded.

"My return to Funcinpec is a good event, not just for me but for all real royalists and Sihanoukists to reconcile," Ranariddh, 71, told a news conference.

"I was ousted ... and now I'm back. There is no one in history like this."

Ranariddh's move has drawn scepticism, with some experts calling it a political maneuver by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to form an alliance and extend the rule of his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) beyond 2018, as challenges to its power grow.

The party was stunned in the 2013 election by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which carved a chunk out of the CPP's parliamentary majority but refused take its seats for a year, arguing it had won, but the CPP had fixed the results.

The CPP and CNRP in July agreed a truce to end a year of at times violent turmoil.

The CNRP returned to the legislature in return for unprecedented concessions by Hun Sen, the self-styled "strongman" with whom Ranariddh once shared power, and who, he said, fully supported his comeback.

"I and Prime Minister Hun Sen have shaken hands and agreed that we, Funcinpec and the CPP, should bring back political policies that the Cambodian people need," he said, during a speech in which he criticized the CNRP.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Hun Sen was "stirring the pot" by opening a potential third party challenge to the CNRP.

"Hun Sen may have calculated that a rejuvenated Funcinpec will draw support away from the CNRP," he said.

"There is always the possibility of a CPP-Funcinpec electoral alliance," he said, adding, however, that the royalists' power had waned and such a pact could ultimately hurt Funcinpec.

Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez

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