Cambodia’s Hun Sen Might Face Electoral Trouble

Written by James Pringle

Could new young voters deny Heaven’s Mandate to Phnom Penh’s strongman?

The Chinese call it the “mandate of heaven,” the right – supposedly bestowed from above – that permits ruling emperors or communist party bigwigs to rule until, in the course of time, they fall or are pushed aside.

In Cambodia, that “right” for the past 28 years has belonged to Hun Sen, an autocrat who glories in his unofficial title of “strongman.” He was placed in power by the Vietnamese army after it invaded Cambodia in 1979 to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, under whose rule 1.7 million people died from a variety of reasons, not least plain murder.

Inevitably, as in all dictatorships, a leader will begin to wobble and, in a drawn-out process, eventually fall. That hasn’t happened to Hun Sen, who at 61 still believes he has many years at the helm as Southeast Asia’s longest serving elected leader. He has said, not necessarily as a joke, that he will be in power until age 90.

Cambodian National Rescue PartyBut observers here say there are intimations of vulnerability that were not perceived before, not least the phalanxes of hundreds of free-spirited young people, many of them women, on motorcycles, waving flags with a rising sun logo, around Phnom Penh, and who are loyal to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a coalition of two parties which came together in July last year.

Five years ago such girls would have been spending their evenings over quiet dinners with extended families. Now they’re on the streets at all times with a burning political message of change.

They pass other groups of regimented and undemonstrative young people in white T-shirts, who belong to the Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), and who are nonetheless not allowed to talk to reporters – they have little to say anyway – and look like rent-a-crowds on a US$5 a day retainer, or at least something from the former East Germany.

As they pass each other in the snarled traffic, they – so far good-naturedly – hold up seven fingers, signaling the CNRP’s official number in the eight political parties taking part in the election, meaning they have to take both hands off their motorbike handlebars. The CPP supporters wave four fingers for their random number in the election line-up.

I don’t remember seeing such scenes in the four previous elections that followed the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. Politics have come to the street, and people are participating like seldom in recent memory.

As Cambodians prepare to go to the polls on July 28, there is a certain sense of nervousness within the upper levels of the ruling CPP, the former communist party, foreign diplomats say. Some have even called this mood “the jitters.”

“It’s stunning and exciting and difficult to believe,” said one foreign member of a human rights group here. “But there seems to be a surge of support for the opposition.”

Two opposition parties have joined together in order at least to dent the rule of the arrogant CPP. One is the Human Rights Party headed by Kem Sokha, who has turned out to be a born orator, every bit as good as Hun Sen at talking to Cambodians at the village level.

The main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy of the eponymous “Sam Rainsy Party,” has also joined the CNRP. He has been pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni of alleged crimes that Rainsy insists were politically motivated by the ruling party, and is scheduled to return home from self-imposed exile on Friday to take part in parliamentary elections that will challenge Hun Sen’s tight grip on power.

With so much at stake, security will be paramount – Hun Sen himself, after all, has a unit of 3,000 or so bodyguards.

The newish coalition combines the Sam Rainsy Party (26 seats in Parliament) with the Human Right Party (HRP) under Kem Sokha. It won just three seats at the last election.

It remains to be seen how Sokha and Rainsy get on together in the longer term, given Sokha’s home-grown political success and Rainsy’s long absence from the country. Will there be a future competition for leadership?

Hun Sen was initially opposed to the pardon, despite some support from within CPP ranks. He resisted overtures from US President Barack Obama to have the charges against Rainsy dropped during a visit last November, maintaining that the issue was a matter for the courts. The courts are, of course, also controlled by Hun Sen.

The CPP currently holds 90 seats in the 123-seat national assembly and is widely expected to be returned to power. But it will most likely be with a reduced majority, which Hun Sen would abhor.

“Even the loss of one seat would be viewed by him as a humiliating defeat, so he had better be prepared for disappointment,” said one foreign diplomat.

The mandate of heaven can be a fickle thing.

The CPP will not lose the election, envoys say. This is because of economic growth, particularly in the impoverished countryside. There, unsophisticated political violence, killing of human rights activists and institutional corruption are all in evidence, but people seem unable to distinguish who is grabbing their land and who is the ruling party they say they want to vote for.

Yet ordinary Cambodians are beginning to ask for a bigger share of development and greater voice in running the country. “The opposition has fresh political ideas,” noted one foreign expert. “And people’s expectations are growing.”

The CNRP has a policy that appeals to the poor. It includes a minimum monthly wage of 600,000 Cambodian riels (US$150) and an old age pension of US $10 a month, pathetic by standards elsewhere, but a boon for older people in rural areas.

For its part, the CPP might control every level of power in Cambodia, and be behind land-grabbing, but it is showing some signs of internal disagreement, diplomats say. Some CPP high-ups were said to be not amused when Hun Sen warned recently, as he has in the past, that there might be a civil war if the CPP was not returned to power. This was, to say the least, unhelpful.

Other CPP leaders are said to be tired of Hun Sen’s boastful posturing and ranting, and the way President Barack Obama seemed to be slighted when he visited the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) last November when Cambodia was the host and chair .

But there is at least one positive development this time around. There has been seemingly very little violence in this election whereas in the past they were marked by political assassinations. Bit by bit, civilized life is being re-established, at least for now.

(James Pringle previously covered the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam)

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19 Responses to "Cambodia’s Hun Sen Might Face Electoral Trouble"

  1. Strey Khmer says:

    ” Don’t counts your eggs before they hatches.”
    Whatever, Hun Sen may had the secreted planned to help him win the election directly. He may already paid a lot of money to buy the agents for set up the system to make him win the election. So that we must have more cameras and more watchers to keep eyes on their actions. If anyone have seen they switch the ballots, you must join together to finish him on the spot as soon as possible.

  2. Former Hia lola says:

    Ecery time when the Cam News talks about CPP, he always bring up the bad news.
    When he talks about Opposition party, he always bring up the good news.
    So Cam News talks bad about who ever he hates and talks good about who ever he likes. Cam News is not neutral at all.

  3. Strey Khmer says:

    And also, Hun Sen has many illegal Vietnam votes for him at the election day.
    So that the fate of Cambodia is on the Vietnam’s hands, they make the decision
    instead of Cambodians whose own the country. For this reason, Cambodia need
    help to prevent Vietnamese not to have the rights to votes for choose the leader
    at the July, 28.

  4. ~|~ says:

    Politic is liar. I need the people who smart to run develop country to be PM in Cambodia.
    I do not want Thieves operate the country and steal everythings from our people and make people poorer and poorer.

  5. CPP says:

    Old wood best to burn, old wine best to drink, old friends to trust, old authors best to read, and old CPP best to vote.

  6. CPP says:

    I don’t know how much I hate CNRP but I just know that I didn’t treate it as a worse evil spirit for Cambodian society . Please let all its supporters or block it then every thing is finish . If all of you still like and support this party it means we are going to destroy ur belove culture and tradition . Thanks for reading !!!!!!!!! Good luck CPP for 5th parliamentary election.

  7. 23 October says:

    Old machine best to change, Old car best to change, Old technology best to change and old CPP best to change to CNRP.

  8. Strey Khmer says:

    We would never teach an old dog with a new fun, an old dog’s mind are very slow and not function very well, or absorb the contribute from his teacher as much as his an old age
    and deteriorate condition to be strong like young developing forward to a fright future of change.

  9. Mao says:

    That would shock anyone (CPP)

  10. ងដហងដឹហ says:

    I don’t know how much I hate Cpp

  11. Strey Khmer says:

    I think, Hun Sen is the cowards, he even dare to have debate with Sam Rainsy like in America and Western countries. He verbal only just himself outside the stage of public
    justice, because he (Hun Sen) lack either the moral and educated to answers the difficult
    question from the intelligentsias on TV or radio. Ashamed on you, cowards Hun Sen!

  12. Arun Reah says:

    Everything is going forward. Change is a must. We cannot accept the leadership of the current government. In their report, everything is perfect, which is contrast to the reality.
    Day by day, people cry, protest, weep, suffer…ect. We need to stop such things from happening to our beloved people, to our beloved country. Our best choice is a change!!
    Please use to your brain and think it carefully before deciding to vote to select someone as the leader of the country.

    We think together, we do together, we receive the result together!
    Among the 8 parties, i think CNRP 7 is the lead. I trust in 7. I hope 7 will win!
    Thank you!

  13. CPP says:

    Realize it’s possible that while CNRP is making you cry, another CPP might be trying to make you smile.
    It’s not hard to find someone who tells you they love you, it’s hard to find someone who actually means it as CPP

  14. a says:

    ពិតប្រាកដណាស់ បើ អាលេខ៤ វាឈ្នះឆ្នោត ពូជយួនវា

    កាន់តែចូលកើនឡើងពេញស្រុក ខ្មែរ ថែមទៀតពុំខាន

    លេខ ៤ នាំយួនចូលស្រុកជា រឿងពិត

  15. Chourn says:

    I do hope that all politicians will accept the result of election peacefully if the National Election Committee is fair enough. After election will be no war, no protest, no temoil, and no revolution like Arabic spring in Africa has been done recently.

  16. Real Khmerologist says:

    Old house need to be rebuilt, old engine is full of rust and need to be replaced, and old man need to be retired…

  17. Real Khmerologist says:

    CPP stands for Communist Puppet Party.

  18. Real Khmerologist says:

    Vote # 7 CNRP mean you help to save our nation from the disappearance. Vote # 7 mean you become independent with territorial integrity. Vote # 7 mean you choose to live up with the real democratic world full of liberty and justice for all. Vote # 7 mean you liberate yourself from the oppression and persecution of all kinds. The turn out of CNRP supporters increasingly manipulated the ruling party days after days…

  19. CHEATH IS MY DOG says:

    fucking CPP, ===….?