Strongman Looks to Hand Over to Son as Cambodia Heads to Polls

One of the world’s longest serving leaders is preparing to hand over power to his son with Cambodia’s ruling party set for a landslide victory in elections this weekend.

(Bloomberg) — One of the world’s longest serving leaders is preparing to hand over power to his son with Cambodia’s ruling party set for a landslide victory in elections this weekend. 

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have won every single election since 1993 as opponents were jailed, often straining ties with Washington. This time, the strongman leader’s son is contesting after rising through the armed forces ranks to become a four-star general. 

West Point-educated Hun Manet, 45, is among the children of the ruling elite serving in positions of power as the government transitions from the old guard to the new generation for the first time since a rebellion against the Khmer Rouge in 1979. 

“This is a watershed moment for both CPP and Cambodia that, at the end of the day, there is an establishment of a ruling class and a non-ruling class,” said Chhengpor Aun, a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. 

The vote comes as the Southeast Asian nation draws even closer to China to shore up an economy that is on the mend following the pandemic. Hun Manet would inherit an economy the World Bank has forecast to accelerate to 5.5% this year after China accounted for more 90% of the foreign direct investment in 2022. 

Political observers said the succession could come any time, even though Hun Sen — who would be 70 after changing his birth date last year  — will defend his post in the elections. Some reports suggest it could happen as soon as this year while BMI, a unit of Fitch Solutions, said it expects the succession to only happen gradually. 

Hun Manet is among more than 20 influential ruling party candidates including senior officials contesting alongside a relative in the vote, according to Kamnotra, a data compiling service backed by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. When he takes power — it would create an opportunity for some version of a diplomatic reset between Cambodia and Western governments, said Sebastian Strangio, author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.” 

“As PM, he will pursue good relations with every country, but as under Hun Sen this goal will be complicated by the need to preserve the CPP’s position of primacy in Cambodian politics,” he said. “Any improvement in relations depends in large part on whether Western governments are willing to accept a less democratic baseline for Cambodia.”

Cambodia’s relationship with the US and its allies have come under considerable strain ever since an opposition party led by Hun Sen’s longtime political nemesis-in-exile Sam Rainsy was barred from running in the last election. Washington has condemned what it sees as the growing influence of China’s military in the country, triggering an arms embargo and export restrictions back in 2021.

The Pentagon has said that facilities at its Ream Naval Base “will be the first PRC overseas base in the Indo-Pacific,” an accusation Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly denied.

The integrity of the upcoming election too has drawn criticism from rights groups, while Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said the US is “deeply troubled” by government actions to prevent the opposition Candlelight Party from running. The political opposition in exile has called on voters to spoil their ballots in protest.

“Spoiling the ballot is a rejection of another rigged election that will cause very severe damage to democracy in Cambodia and instability in the region,” said Mu Sochua, a former opposition lawmaker now living in the US, wrote in an email. “If there is any form of stability, it will be short lived.”

Hun Sen has a different take. “All the participating political parties have been campaigning actively and happily as if the campaign is a joyful festival,” he tweeted this week. I “would like to take this opportunity to call on all citizens who have registered to vote.”

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