The head of Cambodia's royalist party, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was ousted this past week in favor of his less regal brother-in-law, but the dispute's real winner was the country's now undisputed strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hun Sen, who has held or shared the prime minister's post since 1985, was the main force behind moves by the Funcinpec Party to dump Ranariddh, using his well-honed political savvy to have his way with the fractured and demoralized royalists.
In addition to sending Ranariddh on the way to what may well be political obscurity, Hun Sen has also boosted the chances of his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in upcoming elections, said Hang Puthea, executive director of independent Cambodian election monitoring group Nicfec.
"The CPP already commanded the political advantage even without Funcinpec splitting. So, it is going to remain ahead after Funcinpec is broken into pieces," he said.
In a remarkable political career, Hun Sen rose from a peasant background to a Khmer Rouge military commander and then defected to join a Vietnamese-installed communist government which had ousted the ultra-revolutionaries.
He reinvented himself as a brilliant tactician -- critics would say ruthless manipulator -- in Cambodia's fledgling democratic arena.
On Wednesday, Funcinpec voted to remove Ranariddh as its leader, saying his long absences from the country left him unable to lead the party, which is the junior partner in Hun Sen's government.
The decision, which was made at a special party congress came after Hun Sen, well known for his divide-and-conquer tactics, called on Funcinpec to toss out Ranariddh for alleged incompetence.
Ranariddh, speaking by telephone from France on Thursday, stopped short of accusing Hun Sen of being behind his ouster but said it was "very crystal clear" that his removal was the direct result of Hun Sen's Sept. 17 suggestion.
The prince accused the top officials in the new party leadership of betrayal and claimed that many Funcinpec members were forced to attend the congress that ousted him.
Although considering a legal challenge of his ouster, Ranariddh has acknowledged that he will never regain control of Funcinpec, whose leadership he inherited from his father, retired king Norodom Sihanouk.
He said he plans to set up a new party named the Norodom Ranariddh Party.
Having two parties with royalist identities would split the votes of royalist citizens, said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho, a local human rights group.
"Right now they are playing the game of the ruling party. It's really bad for them," he said. "The big winner is the CPP. But of course, Hun Sen is the bigger winner."
Cambodia is to hold local elections next April and general elections in 2008.
Funcinpec was founded as a resistance group against the Vietnamese-installed government more than two decades ago by Sihanouk, whose prestige helped the prince and his party win a 1993 UN-sponsored general election held as part of a peacekeeping mission aimed at establishing democracy.
But under Ranariddh, who many believe is more comfortable as a pampered royal than a rough and tumble politician, the party has seen its popularity gradually wane. It lost to the CPP in the last two general elections in 1998 and 2003.
Royalist officials have put the blame on the prince, who has spent at least as much time traveling overseas -- he teaches law part-time in France -- as he has working to strengthen the royalist party.