Cambodia’s Hun Sen is Fearful of What Will Happen after July’s General Election

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen is Fearful of What Will Happen after July’s General Election

The Cambodian leader will not release his grip until the planned leadership transition to his son Hun Manet has been fully completed.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen is Fearful of What Will Happen after July’s General Election
Credit: Depositphotos

In 2017, it was a tragedy when the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved on the laughably fictitious claim that it was plotting a coup. Had it not been expunged, the CNRP stood a good chance of winning the following year’s general election. This month, it was the turn of farce (to borrow an adage) when the Candlelight Party was blocked from competing in July’s general election. Kafka would be proud of the authorities’ claims of improper paperwork.

The Candlelight Party (CLP)’s demise points to an early succession for Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son. He will run as an MP for Phnom Penh in July and could well take over as prime minister soon after the ballot. The election will now be presented as a plebiscite on his succession. All things in Cambodia now orbit this succession process. So, too, the decision over the CLP. But why? Maybe Hun Sen is dug so far down in his narrative bunker that he now genuinely believes any political rival to his ruling party is, by definition, treasonous and illegitimate – or, indeed, that he genuinely thinks a cabal of foreign diplomats is conspiring “again” for regime change in Phnom Penh, as per his more recent comments.

Or the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is scared about what could happen at July’s general election and thinks the CLP could have managed a surprise victory. But whereas a CNRP victory in 2018 was feasible, a Candlelight Party upset in July seemed near impossible, despite taking a fifth of votes at last year’s local elections. That said, few foresaw the Move Forward Party’s victory in neighboring Thailand’s election this month.

Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has insinuated a more parochial theory: “Who is capable of defeating Hun Manet and the CPP in Phnom Penh? Only the CLP can do it. Only the CLP and its predecessors have already been able to defeat the CPP in the capital, where the electorate is better educated and informed than in other parts of the country. Hun Sen has reportedly carried out recent opinion polls which show the opposition ahead.”

That may be the case, but it begs the question of why Hun Manet was not given a safer constituency than Phnom Penh, a hotbed of opposition politics for decades, if the CPP sensed there was a risk. A source tells me this challenge was the reason why, in early April, Hun Manet was transferred from the role of vice-chairman of the CPP working group in Kampong Cham and Tboung Khmum provinces to vice-chairman of the working group in Phnom Penh, allowing him to run top of the candidate list in the capital. To demonstrate his popularity, other CPP grandees want Hun Manet to prove his mettle by competing in the most challenging of constituencies, so I’m informed. Take this with a pinch of salt. Hun Manet’s political base is young, upwardly-mobile urbanities, and the Western-educated (now former) military man isn’t a child-of-the-soil figure like his father. So, running in Phnom Penh makes sense.

Yet, Hun Sen could have continued with slicing off his opponent’s leadership through lawsuits and trumped-up arrests, as he had been doing since last year, without banning it from competing in the ballot. Denying the CLP outright threatens his goals. It gives even more reason for Western democracies to respond punitively after July’s general election, and further trade sanctions from Cambodia’s main export partners won’t help a neophyte Hun Manet administration. With a viable opponent on the ballot, Hun Sen would have a little more plausible deniability about Cambodia’s one-party structure.

But if there’s no immediate reason to get the CLP off the ballot (if it would never have mounted a real challenge), why would Hun Sen increase the risks of alienating Western economic partners and destabilizing the economy he wants his eldest son to inherit? One suspects that Hun Sen has his mind on what happens post-election. Had the CLP won a respectable share of the vote (say 25 percent) that would have left an alternative for some members of the ruling CPP who aren’t thrilled by Hun Manet’s succession.

Things could go badly during the succession process. A young Hun Manet administration, whenever that transpires, could be hit from different sides, from Western sanctions or a dip in trade, for instance. The economy is purring but there are vulnerabilities. A recession in the United States would imperil Cambodia’s export sectors. A financial shock in China would decimate the housing market and inward investment. A conflict over Taiwan cannot be ruled out in the long-term. Will COVID-19 stage a comeback?

Hun Sen has been in power in one form or another since 1985, and rarely do dictators transfer power without a political crisis. Consider that Hun Sen cannot keep all the promises he’s made to other ruling party grandees and business tycoons that their family members will also rise through the ranks and have a stake in his son’s next government. Patronage is running wild. The bureaucracy will reach breaking point. Some of the newly promoted will have to be fired or moved sideways once the succession process is underway; some won’t get the lucrative positions they’ve been promised, as your columnist argued recently in Nikkei Asia. At some point, intra-party tensions will boil up.

Such tensions may have already played a role in decision-making over the CLP’s fate, although it’s not yet clear. In mid-May, the National Election Committee (NEC), which is stacked with Hun Sen’s allies, ruled that the opposition party has submitted incorrect documents. Those relate to a verified copy of their original party registration document and for a number of reasons, mostly because the party was founded in 1998 and original documents couldn’t be found, the NEC ruled that the paperwork was incomplete.

However, days earlier the Interior Ministry (which is in charge of party registration) reportedly gave the Candlelight Party a letter confirming its status as a registered political party. The CPP-aligned Khmer Times even reported on May 8 that the ministry’s “intervention” meant the opposition party could participate in the election. (There’s still some confusion as to what documents the ministry provided.) However, NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said on May 12 that it “cannot accept” the Interior Ministry’s intervention. Afterwards, the ministry said it was up to the NEC to decide on the matter.

The Interior Ministry is the fiefdom of Sar Kheng, Hun Sen’s main patronage-network rival, along with Defense Minister Tea Banh, within the ruling party. It’s believed that his son, Sar Sokha, will inherit the Interior Ministry once Hun Manet inherits the prime ministership, but the families aren’t close. It’s possible, then, that Hun Sen instructed the NEC to overrule the Interior Ministry, a power play against a potential rival family.

Hun Sen, who’ll remain as CPP president after resigning as PM, will retain the power to dismiss officials as he sees fit. (He’ll still wield enormous influence even after stepping down.) Yet it’s an imaginable scenario that some disaffected officials and politicians will look for an alternative. Could they oust Hun Manet? That’s unlikely if they frame this as purely a party schism, that they’re fractious because of being overlooked in patronage posts and simply disliking the Hun family wielding so much power. But a united front, perhaps with the support of some opposition politicians, would be more viable.

Had the Candlelight Party been allowed to run in July, won some parliamentary seats, and earned a decent percentage of votes, those who are disaffected within the CPP might have decided that they would partner with the opposition to form a unity government or an informal alliance in parliament to vote down Hun Manet’s agenda. An “anything-but-Manet” resistance in parliament would appear more “democratic” and “patriotic” (and more palatable to both the West and China) if it was cross-party. It might not bring down a Manet government, but it could stymie his rule from parliament. Hun Sen is clearly worried about how the National Assembly acts after he steps down; constitutional changes imposed last year weakened parliament’s ability to reprimand a prime minister and ministers, giving more authority over personnel decisions to the ruling party’s president (meaning Hun Sen).

It has been suggested in the past, mainly by Sam Rainsy (and most likely for cynical reasons), that Interior Minister Sar Kheng or Defense Minister Tea Banh might have reached across the floor to stymie Hun Sen’s assault on the opposition. The prime minister seems to have been particularly incensed when, in March, Sam Rainsy threw his support behind Tea Banh’s family as an alternative to the Manet succession. (Your columnist had days earlier reported on a major tiff between the Hun and Tea clans.)

One imagines that Hun Sen has foreseen this threat. It also serves as an important reminder, something often overlooked by commentators, that a one-party state also straitjackets members within the ruling apparatus. Just as there is no political alternative for the populace, there is also no political alternative for those within the ruling party’s circles who think things are moving in the wrong direction. Because there is no alternative, it would be suicidal (sometimes literally) for them to rebel against their own party. It’s everything or nothing in a one-party state, and nothing means the political (and financial) wilderness or worse. Hun Sen’s chokehold is ever more asphyxiating, and it won’t loosen until the succession is complete.