PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Nearly 60 years after he ascended to the throne as a teenager, Norodom Sihanouk still holds sway over his people as a god-king, his every utterance taken as gospel, his mere presence the last proud symbol in a broken country.
Just the fact that Sihanouk returned to Cambodia from his usual residence in Beijing for Sunday's national election--and has promised to remain until a new government is formed, within 60 days--gave international credibility to the election and calmed a nation worried about renewed violence.
About 5 million people--at least 80% of registered voters--cast ballots, election officials told reporters, in what was considered relatively peaceful balloting in this violence-racked nation. A Khmer Rouge attack Sunday on a military outpost in the northern jungles left 10 people dead, but voting throughout the country was mostly without incident.
Those who have had contact with Sihanouk at his palace in Siem Reap, built in the shadow of the Angkor temples that date back to the great 15th-century Khmer Empire, describe the frail 75-year-old king as dispirited, angry and sad. He awaits the results of the election in broody silence, neither enamored of the candidates for prime minister nor optimistic about Cambodia's future.
Publicly, he has maintained his royal neutrality because he may have to broker a coalition in the likely event that none of the 39 parties wins the two-thirds majority needed to form a government. But privately, he speaks disdainfully of the two leading candidates: his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is weak and indecisive, not fit to be prime minister; Hun Sen, he has told confidants, is a repressive dictator.
Hun Sen overthrew Ranariddh in a bloody coup a year ago, and Sihanouk is said to fear the former Khmer Rouge commander. Unlike the vast majority of Cambodia's 10 million people, Hun Sen is no fan of the monarchy, and if he is declared the election victor, he could make Sihanouk politically irrelevant with a word or a decree.
Despite his huge following, particularly in the countryside, Sihanouk has seen his political influence diminish in the past year, leaving him confused over exactly what role he has left to play in Cambodia, Westerners with access to the palace said. He traditionally expresses his displeasure with the vicissitudes of royal life by flying off to Beijing for months at a time, ostensibly to tend to various medical problems.
But Asian and Western diplomats agree that Sihanouk is the only person who can represent all warring factions in Cambodia and stitch together some sort of national unity. His involvement, they say, is crucial if the election is to be a steppingstone toward the restoration of national peace and democracy.
"I want to return to the status quo ante, with genuine respect for human rights, genuine freedom of the press, peace and democracy," Sihanouk told reporters in the gardens of his Siem Reap palace in September.
The irony is that Cambodia knew none of those rights during Sihanouk's reign. Before being overthrown in 1970 while on a trip to Moscow, the autocratic Sihanouk crushed dissent, closed newspapers, jailed some opponents and had others killed. Vain, unpredictable and crafty, Sihanouk was no less the dictator than Hun Sen.
Undeniably, his career has been one of Southeast Asia's most colorful and checkered. Colonial France picked him to be king in 1941, at age 18, thinking him to be the most malleable of the royal pretenders. He then created the international pressure that led to Cambodia's independence in 1953.
Two years later he abdicated, retaining the title of prince, to pursue political goals free of royal constraints. He cut ties to Washington in 1965 to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but still let allied forces make secret incursions into Cambodia to disrupt Communist supply lines.
In the early 1990s, the United Nations spent $2 billion and sent 26,000 troops to Cambodia in an attempt to restore peace to a nation battered by years of war, political instability and the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979 that left more than 1 million Cambodians dead. With the mission an apparent success, Sihanouk startled the world in 1993 by making one of the great political comebacks of the 20th century: He flew back to Phnom Penh, the capital, and reclaimed the throne he had given up 38 years earlier.
Ranariddh was elected prime minister in the U.N.-supervised election that year, with Hun Sen finishing second. But Hun Sen muscled his way into a power-sharing arrangement by threatening to start a civil war. The coalition ended when the co-prime ministers' private armies went to war last July in the streets of Phnom Penh. Ranariddh fled to Thailand.
Sihanouk jetted in from Beijing, with his usual bevy of North Korean bodyguards, in a futile attempt to restore stability. "My people continue to believe that I am a god-king," he said at the time. "But I could not have stopped the fighting. Unfortunately, I am not a god. I am a human being."