Former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh to reassume leadership of royalist party

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a former prime minister of Cambodia who was ousted in a coup and later expelled from the political party he helped found, is seeking a comeback.

Ranariddh said in a letter to current leaders of the royalist Funcinpec party that he was accepting their invitation to reassume its presidency. It had removed him in 2006 for alleged incompetence.

Ranariddh, 71, a son of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, led the party to victory in U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993, but had to accept Hun Sen, the head of the rival Cambodia People's Party, as a co-prime minister. The elections were part of a peace process following the fall of the Khmer Rouge government and were aimed at ending three decades of civil war.

Hun Sen staged a coup against his partner in 1997 with a lightning military takeover.

Ranariddh's restoration is seen as a backroom maneuver by Hun Sen to split the opposition in the 2018 general election. Funcinpec won no National Assembly seats in the 2013 election while another opposition group, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, delivered a strong challenge to Hun Sen by winning 55 of the 123 seats.

Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhek Bun Chhay said Friday that Ranariddh will officially assume its leadership at a party congress this month. He denied that Hun Sen was involved in Ranariddh's return.

Funcinpec's original success was related to the popularity of Sihanouk, who died in 2012. But Ranariddh had little of his father's charisma, and many Funcinpec lawmakers had reputations for corruption. After the party was shattered in the 1997 coup, it fell strongly under Hun Sen's influence. It served as a coalition partner in his government after elections in 1998, 2003 and 2008.

Ranariddh was dismissed as president of Funcinpec in 2006 on allegations of incompetence. Soon afterward, his former party supporters sued him for allegedly embezzling $3.6 million. Ranariddh fled the country, and was convicted in March 2007 on embezzlement charges and sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison.

He formed a new political party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which won only two parliamentary seats in July 2008 elections while he was in exile. In September 2008, Ranariddh's half-brother, King Norodom Sihamoni, granted him a pardon for the embezzlement conviction. Ranariddh then returned home and announced he was quitting politics and retiring as head of his party.

Since December 2008, Ranariddh has held the post of chief adviser to the king as head of the Supreme Privy Advisory Council. The post gave him a rank formally equivalent to that of prime minister, but without political power.

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