Long-serving Cambodian leader consolidates control ahead of polls and a possible leadership transition to one of his children
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) initiated 342 people into its Central Committee at a recently concluded three-day congress, marking the party’s largest ever induction of new members to its core.
The move boosts the communist-like body’s size to 865, almost four times larger than China’s and Vietnam’s Communist Parties’ central committees.
While the CPP’s committees customarily expand at each congress, the latest increase has the hallmarks of a political power play as Hun Sen consolidates his grip ahead of this year’s elections and a possible dynastic leadership transition to one of his children in the years ahead.
In late December, Hun Sen suggested that several secretaries and undersecretaries of state would be barred from Cabinet meetings, while he would also directly appoint people to the positions himself. They have traditionally been chosen by the National Assembly.
A CPP spokesman claimed at the time the move was made because Hun Sen thinks the “government is too large.” But if that’s what the premier thought a month ago, it begs the question why the party’s Central Committee grew by almost a third at the CPP’s recently concluded congress.
Some analysts believe that the Central Committee, nominally a key decision-making body that debates policies and appointments, now lacks the political weight it once held.
This is likely Hun Sen’s intent, a move designed to dilute the opinions of party members with alternative views through the sheer mass of delegates, while also giving more power to the smaller 13-member Permanent Committee, in which the party’s major decisions are now made.
In November, the CPP ensured that its only viable opponent will not take part in this July’s general election after a compliant Supreme Court formally dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the largest opposition party. Supreme Court President Dith Munty, the judge who made the ruling, is also a member of the CPP’s Permanent Committee.
Political scientist Lee Morgenbesser, of Australia’s Griffith University, said last year that Hun Sen had built a “personalist dictatorship” where his own power now exceeds that of the CPP, which he solely controls. That might still be the case, though there are signs that not all is well within the ruling party.
Lu Laysreng, a former deputy prime minister of the royalist Funcinpec party who fled Cambodia last year, told Radio Free Asia in November he thinks that while many CPP officials don’t publicly question Hun Sen, they are privately concerned about the direction he’s taking the party.
“This side of the CPP knows that sooner or later Hun Sen will plunge himself into trouble. Once he is falling down, he will be then pushed to step down,” he said, before advising the premier: “Don’t just keep yourself overwhelmed with the issue of dividing the CNRP. Within your party, it is not so stable.”
One reason for intra-party dissatisfaction could be the defiant, almost welcoming, stance Hun Sen and some senior officials have taken towards the possibility of the European Union and US imposing sanctions in response to the CNRP’s dissolution. Suggested measures have included the freezing of CPP members’ assets held overseas.
If Washington and Brussels follow through on these threats, it could sow dissatisfaction among some party officials, especially among those not as wealthy as the party’s senior members. A possible economic downturn caused by sanctions, including measures targeting crucial export industries like garments, might also alienate business elites, whose support is integral to the CPP’s rule.
“Anyone sensible would be concerned about the direction not just of the party but of the country,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, told Asia Times.
Referring to effect of possible sanctions on government officials, he added this would necessarily mean “a smaller pie for everybody, and who wants a smaller pie? Nobody.”
Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby group, has suggested that Western nations try to cut off Hun Sen from his own party by “isolating him as a pariah; isolating him economically,” John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director, told local media.
Sifton said this could be done by either targeting only Hun Sen with sanctions or targeting only senior CPP officials and not him.
Hun Sen is no stranger to dissent among his own ranks and has adroitly navigated past internal tumult. Indeed, indications of factional sparring within the CPP has quietened in recent years, particularly since the death Chea Sim, a party grandee and CPP president from 1991 until he passed away in 2015.
In 2004, when Hun Sen took the party into a brief coalition with Funcinpec, Chea Sim contested the alliance. His residence was allegedly surrounded by police controlled by a Hun Sen loyalist, and Chea Sim was put on a plane to neighboring Thailand.
Prior to that move, Chea Sim was made president of the Senate in 1999, then a newly created upper house, in a Hun Sen inspired move many saw as a demotion from his previous long-held role (1981-98) as National Assembly president. Some analysts at the time believe the position was specifically created for his “retirement” from executive office.
But Chea Sim’s faction is still thought to have some influence within the CPP and is today centered on his brother-in-law, Sar Kheng, who serves concurrently as deputy prime minister and interior minister.
In 2015, Sar Kheng was given the honorific “samdech”, which roughly translates as “greatest,” a title shared by only a handful of senior party leaders. Sar Kheng’s son and brother, Sar Ratha and Sar Thet, joined the CPP’s Central Committee this week.
Kong Korm, a retired politician who served as the Sam Rainsy Party’s president for three years, controversially said last year that Sar Kheng could remain deputy prime minister if the CNRP won July’s general election. (The speech was made before the party’s dissolution).
Sar Kheng said the remark was “dishonest propaganda,” though it supported the view of many analysts that the minister has emerged as a moderating force within government, one that could hold the party together in the event of turmoil.
“I think Sar Kheng is ultimately, at this point, the person who would consolidate control, either with one of the children of Hun Sen or against them. And I think if he did it with them it would be better,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, told the Southeast Asia Globe in January.
Chamber’s comments, including rumors about Hun Sen’s ill-health that were prompted after numerous visits he made in recent months to Singaporean hospitals, were angrily rebutted by the premier, who challenged three foreign political commentators named in the piece to a game of golf and chess to prove his fitness.
In some respects, doubts over party loyalty are to be expected.
After the CNRP’s dissolution in November, Hun Sen told the party’s elected members, from provincial to commune officials, to defect to the ruling party or lose their jobs. More than 2,000 did, mainly because of official threats and intimidation, though the defections were probably not as many as Hun Sen wanted.
Small wonder the CPP doesn’t inherently trust these reluctant defectors, whose true interests most likely don’t lie with the success of the ruling party at upcoming polls. Despite their defections, many remain under police surveillance.
Moreover, there are indications that some CPP grassroots members aren’t especially happy about the incoming defectors, with some concerned that they will be overlooked for political positions.
A similar problem is found in wider Cambodian society. The ruling party is thought to officially have 5.3 million registered members, according to an internal party document leaked in August, but only 3.5 million people voted for the CPP in June’s commune election.
Many analysts doubt there is currently any serious factional division within the CPP, but that might change after July’s general election.
The ruling party’s campaign to erase the CNRP from the ballot was no doubt motivated by fear of losing the upcoming poll. The CPP only narrowly won the 2013 general election and saw significant losses at last year’s local commune elections. The CNRP’s dissolution means the CPP is almost guaranteed victory, though Hun Sen is apparently not overly confident.
“It does not mean that because the opposition party is dissolved we can become careless or stop working, but this thing might become the danger for us. It is not the opposition party that kills us, but we kill ourselves,” he said in a speech to senior party officials that was leaked in November.
Unlike Vietnam and China’s ruling parties, the CPP does not believe a regular change of leadership is healthy for the party’s survival. Indeed, Hun Sen has been in power since 1985, making him the world’s longest serving non-royal leader.
Much of this, especially in more recent years, is predicated on the notion that only he is able to hold the party together. For Hun Sen, elections are meant to show business and political elites that the public still recognizes him as the nation’s only capable leader.
But embarrassment at the polls could put that legitimacy at risk. The CPP’s concern, analysts say, is not only that some voters opt for minor parties, but that a sizeable number of Cambodians boycott the election altogether, a more probable scenario. Some CNRP supporters say that is their only means of protest.
The 2013 general election was attended by low voter turnout of 68.5%. Some now suggest a voter turnout of less than 60% in July would be equivalent to a vote of no confidence in the CPP-led government.
This becomes even more important amid suggestions that Hun Sen needs a resounding victory in July to complete his long-speculated handover of power, expected to be to one of his sons.
But if the CPP fares poorly at the polls, it could jeopardize a handover and call into question the direction he has taken the party and the country. For now, though, no one has dared to stand up as a potential new party leader.