Billboards across the country have carried the same picture for more than a decade – side-by-side the three most senior members of the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party (CCP) stand: President of the National Assembly Heng Samrin, Prime Minister Hun Sen, and CPP President Chea Sim.
Chea Sim died this week aged 82 after a long illness. His death was not unexpected and had been factored into Cambodia’s political equation as a marker for a potential transfer of power after Hun Sen announced in April that he would assume the party presidency once Chea Sim died.
Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia for 30 years, would prefer to see one of his sons take the top job and secure the family’s legacy. He has looked for democratic precedents elsewhere, even if dubious, and the most obvious examples were found in Russia and Singapore.
By assuming the presidency Hun Sen can follow a political path previously cleared by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In Russia real power lies with the president. In Singapore and Cambodia it resides with the prime minister.
Putin was constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as president but clung to power by securing the job as prime minister after his term expired and then maneuvering long-time friend and ally Dmitry Medvedev into the top post as president.
Medvedev served one term as president before handing the reigns back to Putin in 2012. The pair took advantage of a technicality that undermined the legality and spirit of the Russian constitution, nevertheless Putin was returned with an overwhelming majority.
Hun Sen’s oldest son Manet, a West Point graduate and a lieutenant general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), was for many years considered a potential future leader of Cambodia – if he and his father could garner enough support from within the all-important politburo.
But Manet has since made it known that the top job might not be for him.
Instead, Hun Sen is keen on promoting Manet’s younger brother Manith, an RCAF brigadier general who first emerged as a possible contender with his hardline attitudes towards Thailand after the border conflict at Preah Vihear first erupted in 2008.
However, even Hun Sen realizes that promoting his son into the top slot too soon would create problems. He has already faced widespread criticism from within his own ranks for fast tracking Manet and Manith within government and a third son, Many, into the National Assembly at the 2013 polls.
Hence the importance of the Singapore model, where former leader Lee Kuan Yew retired into the job as senior minister and backed Goh Chok Tong as his successor. Goh served as prime minister from 1990 until 2004 when Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong assumed the post.
Chea Sim will be remembered for many reasons. Inside the CPP he was a formidable figure with a ruthless reputation and a liking for the trappings of office.
More importantly his death will mark the slow transfer of power in a country which has a long tradition of thuggish rulers. That includes the former monarch Norodom Sihanouk who like Chea Sim, Heng Samrin and Hun Sen sided with the dreaded Khmer Rouge in the early days of their rule, defecting only after they were targeted for an internal purge.
None of these three were part of the Khmer Rouge Standing or Central committees, and their decision to defect to Vietnam has helped protect them from prosecution at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal, much to the irritation of human rights groups.
Hun Sen’s decision to take on the position of CPP president following Chea Sim’s death is comparable with Lee Kuan Yew’s retirement post as a “minister mentor,” and Putin’s decision to run for the job as prime minister and at least pretend to play second fiddle to Medvedev for one term.
It would lend him more than enough legitimacy to influence, even run, a Cambodian government that has been built around his patronage networks from behind the scenes should he decide to step down from the prime ministership after elections in 2018.
But one important, unanswered question is who will fill in for King Norodom Sihamoni as head of state when he is out of the country. It’s an important position from a sovereign, legal standpoint and had been filled by Chea Sim – but it’s a post that Hun Sen may not be keen on.
Sources close to the CPP suggest Say Chhum, currently secretary general of the Permanent Committee – a group of five who run the politburo – will fill this position.
He has seniority within the party, is a master tactician whose son is the current environment minister and within 24 hours of Chea Sim’s passing he has already been elected to replace him in another capacity, as head of the Senate.
This raises a tantalizing question: Could Say Chhum become the next prime minister and serve until Manith is deemed ready to take the reins with Hun Sen overlording – in the traditional sense of the word – from the back rooms of power?
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt