Just days after Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed to have won 120 of the 125 National Assembly seats in the July 23 general election, long-serving Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he would pass the country’s top job to his son, 45-year-old Hun Manet.
Critics described Sunday’s election as a “sham,” referencing the dramatic reduction in civil and political rights and media freedoms that has occurred under Hun Sen’s tenure.
Democracy in decline . . .
Hun Sen’s dominance of Cambodian politics stretches over nearly four decades. He first became prime minister in 1985, and in 1997, he led a coup to unseat his party’s coalition partner, which had won Cambodia’s first democratic election four years earlier. Hun Sen faced one of his biggest challenges in the 2013 election, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 45 per cent of the vote and accused Hun Sen and the CPP of electoral fraud.
In the ensuing years, he has been relentless in neutralizing challenges to his political control. That includes disqualifying opposition parties like the CNRP and, more recently, the Candlelight Party, over technicalities or charging and convicting their leaders of crimes such as defamation and treason – charges observers say are politically motivated.
Like father, like son?
Few Cambodia watchers expect Hun Manet to depart from his father’s authoritarian tendencies in any meaningful way. In the immediate future, he will need to demonstrate his leadership skills with his father’s long shadow looming over him; Hun Sen has in that he is not stepping back from an active role in Cambodian politics altogether and will retain his role as head of the CPP.
The New York Times journalist Sebastian Strangio, however, doubts that Hun Manet has “the ruthless instinct that has helped his father to remain at the pinnacle of Cambodian politics for so long.” If that is the case, the leadership transition may be choppier than expected.