Prime Minister Hun Sen has extended his absolute authority over Cambodia, trouncing a feeble opposition in Sunday’s general election and paving the way for a transfer of power to his eldest son Hun Manet within a month.
The one-sided election, derided by Western countries and dismissed as a sham by pro-democracy activists, enabled the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win 120 seats contested in the 125-seat National Assembly.
The royalist Funcinpec party ended Cambodia’s status as a one-party-state by winning five seats after forecasting it would win at least half the available seats while 16 other minor parties appeared unlikely to win much more than one percent of the overall vote.
But the result was a mere formality in the promotion of Hun Manet, a prospect made clear on Thursday when Hun Sen told Chinese television his 45-year-old son could take control of the ruling party and the country within three to four weeks.
“I am the one who makes the biggest sacrifice. Right now, I have absolute power, but in about a month, I won’t have the power to sign any bills the same way as I do today,” he said. “I believe that Manet is more competent than me.”
Hun Manet is expected to attend the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly as prime minister, opening on September 5. He can expect a warm reception from old Cambodian allies including China, Cuba, and North Korea but good tidings might be a bit thin elsewhere.
In a letter addressed to six Western parliaments ahead of yesterday’s election, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said that Hun Sen “appears determined to drive the final nail into the coffin of Cambodia’s democracy” adding these elections “cannot possibly be free and fair.”
APHR has even called on parliaments in the European Union, United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand to adopt legislation designed not to recognize the results of a poll also described by the U.S. State Department as “neither free nor fair.”
That’s a big ask but suggestions by some that Hun Manet’s background – a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. from the University of Bristol – might spell some improvement in Cambodia’s sorely tested relationships with Western countries, in particular the U.S., are overrated.
As Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia recently told me, “If Hun Sen is 90 percent pro-China, then Hun Manet might be around 85 percent.”
In other words, Cambodia’s cozy relationship with China will continue. That includes Chinese construction of a controversial naval base at Ream on the south coast which has upset Washington and firmly placed Phnom Penh within Beijing’s military orbit.
Hun Manet and foreign policies struck by his father will still be backed by the crop of senior ministers who have spent decades in cabinet and are also preparing to hand their portfolios to their sons to ensure power remains within the ruling elite.
No let-up is expected in the long-running crackdown on dissent, independent media, and opposition politicians, although some political prisoners may be released, simply because there’s no point in keeping them anymore.
Nor is Hun Manet expected to stray far from his father’s reach. Hun Sen has stayed on message in recent years. He intends to remain in the CPP Politburo from where he can exert political influence over the party, which has ruled since a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
He has also said he wants to see his grandson become prime minister in the 2030s.
For Cambodians and outsiders with vested interests in this country, a carefully crafted election and Hun Manet’s elevation to the top job simply means more of the same.