Prime Minister Hun Sen is weighing political options carefully and quietly. Political manoeuvering has been limited after his party, Cambodia People's Party (CPP), won only 68 seats while the opposition scored big time with 55 seats at the end of July. T
The voters have already delivered a clear verdict – they wanted changes. Deep in their hearts, they know changes would come only with outside pressure and intervention. After all, Cambodia’s history, especially after the end of civil war in 1991, has been all about foreign engagement, principally with the United Nations and the so-called consortium of Western funders.
Hun Sen’s current dilemma is of his own creation. After dislodging Prince Norodom Rannaridh in 1997, he gradually emerged as a strong man in Cambodia without any challenger within his Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition. With the country under his control since then, he turned his political ambition abroad, boasting political stability and rapid economic progress.
The past 15 years witnessed Hun Sen’s rise in regional and global politics – experiences he relished. After all, he was the first Asean leader to raise an intra-Asean land boundary issue to the UN Security Council. Cambodia has been the most active diplomatically of all former Indochinese countries with a freer press and more independent civil society sector, albeit with constant harassment from the authorities. Prior to the dramatic reforms in Myanmar in 2011, Cambodia was the poster child among the less developed countries.
However, Cambodia’s political narrative has dramatically altered after the election. Hun Sen has to shoulder the burden alone now defending the poor showing and unpredictable consequences. The voter’s swing caught everybody including the ruling party and the international community by surprise.
Hun Sen’s leadership, unshakeable for decades, could be challenged in the future. At this juncture, no top CCP leaders would dare to come forward. Worse still, he has not seriously groomed any potential leader to succeed him – apart from his young son, Hun Maneth – as he wanted to stay on for another decade. Among the top CPP leaders, there are political veterans, especially the permanent deputy prime minister Men Sam An, who could carry on the torch if he is looking out for a trusted colleague.
The turnouts showed the CPP has indeed disconnected with the dynamic younger generation, who are neither traumatised by the Khmer Rouge nor the civil war. Reforms within the CPP are urgently needed to allow mobility and broadening outreach programs to bridge income gaps and win back support. The opposition has tapped into the young Cambodians and civil society groups with key populist policies to win over Hun Sen’s followers.
The Phnom Penh-based diplomatic community was perplexed and polarised by the poll outcome. At one end, countries with strong ties with Cambodia such as Asean, China and South Korea accepted the National Election Commission’s verdict. However the West, headed by US, EU and Australia, have insisted on a full inquiry of alleged voting irregularities. They have threatened to severe assistance.
Within weeks, Cambodia halted military cooperation with the US – typical Hun Sen brinksmanship in response to the perceived interference by Washington. Although nascent US-Cambodia military cooperation has taken years to grow but it is immediately dwarfed by China’s more encompassing ties with Cambodia. The US hopes the suspension is temporary.
Truth be told, Beijing is also concerned of possible political backlashes in Cambodia, where its influence has been soaring since 2000. China has now become the country’s largest trading partner and aid donor, shifting away from the dependence on multiple funders to one source. If political demonstrations called by the opposition continue and spur ugly scenes, it could impact on the China-Cambodia friendship.
What are Hun Sen’s exit strategies? Options are few, with low and high risks. He could open the National Assembly with or without the participation of the opposition – the constitution allows such a move. But political turbulence would ensue. If he is in the mood for reconciliation, the opposition could be brought into the Cabinet. During the political deadlocks in 1993 and 1997 the late King Norodom Sihanouk played a pivotal role to end political impasses. King Norodom Sihamoni, who is residing in Beijing, could follow his father’s footstep.
If Hun Sen really wants to leave a memorable legacy, he must deal and reconcile with all stakeholders and prevent political upheaval as in the ‘Arab spring’. Then and only then, Cambodia can proceed on a peaceful path and become a full-fetched democracy.