Cambodia’s Leadership Succession: One Small Step Further

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia’s Leadership Succession: One Small Step Further

Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed his eldest son Hun Manet as his successor. But he did not name a date – and many further questions remain unanswered.

Cambodia’s Leadership Succession: One Small Step Further

Cambodia’s prime ministerial heir apparent Hun Manet as seen in a photo posted on his Facebook page on November 29, 2021.

Credit: Facebook/Hun Manet

For years, it has been an open secret that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been grooming his eldest son Hun Manet as his successor. But the announcement on December 2  came as a surprise, given that it did not seem urgent and the succession is likely to be merely prospective sometime later this decade. After all, Hun Sen, 69, has ruled Cambodia since 1985, enjoys continued good health, and dominates the country almost at will, as does his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. And therein lies the great challenge of the transition: how does someone who has acquired such a degree of power step down without disrupting the fabric of the party and the state?

Hun Sen Cannot Simply Step Down

Precisely for this reason, far more is at stake than simply a personnel matter at the head of the government. The office of government has always represented a personal security guarantee for Hun Sen and his clan. In his logic, a loss of power would mean a threat to his personal security and that of his family. Hun Sen cannot simply step down.

Hence, there is much more at stake than simply finding a successor to take over the leadership of the government. Instead, the real task is to reorganize political power in a nation where state institutions are challenged by informal institutions consisting of thoroughly personalized networks of power. The security forces, the state apparatus, and the CPP are the main pillars of the political system all dominated by Hun Sen. By contrast, Cambodia’s formal democratic rules have been effectively undermined by these networks, with currently only the CPP holding seats in parliament. In this de-facto one-party state, the next parliamentary elections in 2023 will do little loosen the CPP’s grip on the country.

Instead, Cambodian patronage politics determine the state. They consist of extensive personal networks, interdependencies, and alliances that are difficult to recognize from the outside. Hun Sen’s rise over the past four decades has mainly been based on his ability to  establish loyalties and dependencies. This ability has set him noticeably apart from many other potentates of post-socialist states, who have not been able to stay at the center of politics for nearly as long as Hun Sen. In recent years, dynastic tendencies have evolved as Cambodia’s leading government officials and politicians began to endow their sons with influential posts in the government in order to gradually engineer a generational transition within the CPP.

The Importance of the Security Forces

Along with the military, the gendarmerie, and the police, Hun Sen’s private army of “bodyguards” is by far the most important pillar of his power. Without it, he would not be the central decision-making authority in Cambodian politics. Through a skillful selection of personnel, politically important marriages, and enormous financial contributions, Hun Sen has produced security forces that are loyal to him personally and less so to the office of prime minister that he holds. Although he has never directly commanded the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) himself, he has exercised de facto control over it since 2009. Lieutenant General Hun Manet, a 1999 graduate from West Point and now formally RCAF’s number two, vouches for this continuity. For this very reason, he is repeatedly regarded as the top candidate to succeed his father.

However, this is where the immense challenges begin. No matter how much Hun Manet has earned the respect and loyalty of his troops, he will never wield the influence that his father does – unless he chooses to follow the path of Myanmar into open military dictatorship, in which his generals become the decisive figures of the state. But this seems neither desirable nor likely. Hence, there is currently much indication that Hun Manet will end his military career and become a civilian politician, perhaps by the time of the next national election in 2023.

However, it is unclear what this means for his father’s private army. Will Hun Sen continue to maintain it for his safety, will it become the Hun Manet’s or the Hun clan’s army, or will it be incorporated into the formal structure of the RCAF? And what would be the consequences for all those who have done the dirty work for the boss – from gross human rights violations to the plundering of Cambodian natural resources – over the past three decades? Will they receive lifetime immunity for the crimes they have committed? These and other questions are probably the most central ones surrounding the question of how conflictual the power transition will be.

The Need for a New Style of Governance

In the civilian state apparatus, too, the struggle for power and money will be hardly less intense. There is a lot at stake, since Cambodia is one of the most corrupt states in Asia. Ultimately, however, it will hardly be possible to satisfy all the players. While coercion can only be a last resort, it could be crucial in avoiding internal fractures in the government apparatus.

Nevertheless, as Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Manet would eventually have to significantly change the way the office is run. This is because his father will leave behind a massively centralized political decision-making process: it is safe to assume that no major political decision in the past decades has been made without Hun Sen’s approval.

This is due to the numerous government committees that have taken extensive decision-making powers away from the ministries and are staffed by Hun Sen himself or close confidants. Hun Sen has also established a veritable network of advisors and informants loyal to him in all relevant areas of government and administration, through whom he is always aware of the dynamics within his apparatus.

Can and should this network be taken over by his son? If so, this would be an enormous transition of power that will likely shape Cambodia’s politics for many years to come. If not, then the country would face a completely new style of government – whatever that might look like. In view of its limited efficiency, it is doubtful that the high degree of political centralization is still appropriate in an increasingly differentiated and efficient national economy.

Hun Sen Will Remain a Key Political Actor

While no one in Cambodia would ever dare to contradict Hun Sen’s decision to choose his son as his successor, it remains important that this decision is not only publicly condoned by the ruling CPP and its senior members, but also respected by them. Therefore, despite his far-reaching dominance, Hun Sen cannot ignore the party if he wants to make the transition sustainable. The fact that he was elected as party leader for life in 2015 certainly plays into his hands in this situation. His predecessor Chea Sim died in office, and so Hun Sen will probably remain a central player in politics for a very long time to come without being too involved in the day-to-day business of government.

It would be a big surprise if Hun Sen were to relinquish the chairmanship of the party along with the office of head of government. For this reason alone, his resignation as prime minister may not lead to a fundamental break in Cambodian politics. After all, Hun Sen need not be at the head of the government to exercise political power, and to discipline his apparatus and the party.

In this setting, Hun Sen would remain a powerful veto player behind his son. This is another legacy that Hun Manet would have to manage. Consequently, the power transition would definitively take some time to complete. The devil, as always, is in its details.