AT the heart of Cambodia's struggle to recover from its feudal history is the country's notorious royal family.
Two of the family's scions maintain a bitter rivalry and its patriarch, the country's former monarch, is famous for his political tantrums. All this might seem part of a regal farce if the stakes weren't so high for the people of Cambodia. The country has been torn by decades of war and hardship caused by corrupt, sometimes fanatical regimes and by foreign interference.
But the reverence the palace commands here, despite political maneuvering among its occupants, highlights a desperation among Cambodians grasping at any chance for stability. Many recall better times under former monarch Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
At the same time, the palace intrigues and their importance in shaping a new government after the country's first multiparty elections in 21 years raise questions about the effectiveness of the nearly $3 billion United Nations peace mission in Cambodia.
Yashushi Akashi, UN special representative in Cambodia, says it is vital for Prince Sihanouk to be at the center of efforts to bring peace.
But privately, some UN officials express disdain over Sihanouk's role as national reconciliator, since he spends most of his time at his homes in China and North Korea. They are impatient with his periodic fits of pique that often result in hand-scrawled notes released to the press in which he threatens to withdraw from the political scene when his decisions or leadership style draw criticism.
Sihanouk, known as "the mercurial prince," is adept at political backtracking, which has time and again led to threats and reversals. He would seem an unlikely choice to foster stability.
But although Sihanouk often seems to outsiders to be ideally cast for a leading role in a political theater of the absurd, the master showman's vanity and vacillation seem to enhance the demigod status he has attained among compatriots during a half-century of life as monarch, prime minister, president, deposed ruler in exile, and now head of state.
"Whether you like Prince Sihanouk or not, to have stability as soon as possible, he is necessary," says Raoul Jennar, a Belgium-based consultant to international agencies in Cambodia.
But Sihanouk has trouble mediating squabbles between his own best-known sons, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prince Norodom Chakrapong.
Prince Ranariddh is the head of the royalist party, originally led by Sihanouk, which fought alongside the Khmer Rouge to oust the Vietnamese-installed government of Prime Minister Hun Sen before the UN peace plan was signed in 1991. The party, known by the acronym FUNCINPEC, won a surprising victory over Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in the May elections.
Prince Chakrapong broke with the palace in 1991 and joined the Hun Sen government as deputy prime minister, increasing hostilities with Ranariddh.
Ranariddh, who spends much of his time with his wife and children in Bangkok, has accused Chakrapong of trying to kill him. Ranariddh scuttled an interim government proposed by his father, in part to ensure his half-brother would not have a leading role in it.
Chakrapong, meanwhile, began a secessionist movement in eastern Cambodia to protest alleged election irregularities. After three days the movement fizzled, Chakrapong fled to Vietnam, and Sihanouk offered himself yet again as the reconciler.
Soon, Chakrapong was back in Phnom Penh. He lost his post as deputy prime minister, but in another ironic maneuver, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith announced he would be made roving ambassador for the government he had just tried to subvert.
Observers in Phnom Penh speculated there was never any serious intention for any of the provinces to break away and said Sihanouk was behind the move, perhaps as a ploy to make his leadership look more attractive to the international community as well as Cambodians.
At the time, Sihanouk was still fuming over reports quoting an unidentified UN official as saying the former monarch had attempted a "constitutional coup" with his earlier declaration that he would head a coalition bringing together CPP and FUNCINPEC officials.
Sihanouk dissolved the government less than 24 hours after it was formed and said he would make no further attempts to put together an interim leadership. But he later resumed those efforts, and a provisional government has been taken shape.
Cambodians were heartened when the new assembly named Sihanouk head of state.
"In the past, Prince Sihanouk was the most important leader in Cambodia," said Khong Sovanara, who sells electronic goods in the provincial capital of Kompong Cham. "I am worried that no one can replace him."