At the time of writing, it’s rather unclear what the Cambodian cabinet is trying to achieve by amending the constitution again – the third time in four years. The government is tight-lipped. Because we know what articles are under review, it seems they are trying to change how prime ministers are appointed and how they can be removed from office. Possibly, this will remove certain powers from the National Assembly. Most likely, the changes are being made because of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s succession plans.
In December, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) selected Hun Manet as its next prime ministerial candidate once Hun Sen, his father, resigns. Sar Kheng, the interior minister, took exception, but Hun Sen appears to have now put him in his place. Talk of a Sar Kheng putsch is fanciful; he’s lost even more power after two new party vice presidents were appointed in December. The CPP itself easily won last month’s commune elections, and we can expect another rout at next year’s general election. Kem Sokha’s trial seems to be nearing a climax, yet whatever the result, his partnership with Sam Rainsy is as good as over, ending the united opposition.
Because of the pace of changes, and the CPP’s (and Hun Sen’s) political strength right now, it’s tempting to think he might favor an early handover. But, in reality, there isn’t any great hurry. Only ill health would disrupt the succession, and Hun Sen is 69, younger than most of his CPP rivals and political opponents. Hun Manet is only 44. Time, it seems, is on their side. The economy is fine, despite the pandemic and crises this year. It’ll be stronger the longer Hun Sen waits for succession. There’s a new political challenger in the Candlelight Party, but it could be dissolved all too easily if Hun Sen wanted.
Yet, as Andrew Nachemson argued recently in Foreign Policy, “Hun Sen faces many difficult decisions to ensure Hun Manet makes it to the prime minister’s office, but one of the biggest obstacles may be his own reluctance to walk away.” It is certainly Hun Sen’s gift to decide when he steps down. Yet, at the same time, the importance of when exactly he walks away can be exaggerated.
Much of the talk of political succession overlooks two issues. First is the semantics of Hun Sen’s “retirement.” He might one day resign as prime minister but he won’t immediately give up power. (This could be a reason for the current constitutional changes.) Just like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, he will almost certainly retain de facto control in a “senior minister” role. One also imagines he wouldn’t immediately resign as president of the CPP. So, then, there’s an important difference between the date Hun Sen resigns as prime minister and the day he resigns (properly) from front-line politics. The former could be in 2023 and the latter 2028, the years of the next two general elections. Or it could be 2028 and 2033. Hun Manet could be prime minister for years, if not decades, before Hun Sen actually exits politics for good. As such, handing over the prime ministership will be a relatively easy decision for Hun Sen if he is assured he can maintain power through an advisory post – and if he is assured there are no surprise avenues for attack by potential rivals who want the top job.
More to the point, political succession won’t simply be Hun Sen handing over the prime ministership to Hun Manet. He has already instructed Hun Manet to create a “reserve cabinet” composed of younger politicians and bureaucrats. That is the club to watch from now on. Rather than a simple succession of Hun Sen to his eldest son, it will be a far more complex “generational succession.” Yet, like Hun Manet, many of his younger partners are not yet elected politicians. If they want to rise to minister status they will also need to run for the office next year and then slowly replace the current party grandees, now in their 60s and 70s. Hun Manet will be the most important node, but his succession cannot happen alone, nor without this wider shift in the party network. We’re not going to see Hun Manet as prime minister while Sar Kheng remains interior minister and Tea Banh defense minister.
This suggests a prime ministerial handover is more likely before 2028, not before 2023. Like Hun Manet, the members of his “reserve cabinet” will also need to gain the necessary experience in politics and ministerial life between 2023 and 2028. (Although some are already secretaries or undersecretaries of state, and many act as de facto deputy ministers.) One reckons Hun Manet will be named defense minister after next year’s general election, at which point he will resign from the military and run as an MP.
Hun Manet’s growth in other important areas also appears to be going smoothly. He’s controlled the party’s youth wing for several years. He’s now greatly expanded his control of the CPP’s “philanthropic wing.” His Samdech Techo Voluntary Youth Doctor Association (TYDA) became a very powerful “charity” during the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent months it has collected millions of dollars in donations from Cambodia’s rich and powerful business community. He is also president of several other party-aligned charities, which all bring him close to party donors. It’s speculation, but one wouldn’t be surprised to see Hun Manet’s wife Pich Chanmony, who runs many of these “charities” with him, soon take over as head of the Cambodian Red Cross, an important post held by Bun Rany, Hun Sen’s wife, since the late 1990s.
If you click through Hun Manet’s Facebook page (which is followed by more than 1 million people) you might notice that he’s rarely in military fatigues nowadays. He’s regularly dressed in suits, opening pagodas, schools, or hospitals, the bread-and-butter work of a Cambodian prime minister. Indeed, Hun Manet seems to be regularly replacing his father at many of these events, a sign that the succession is a gradual process. He’s now also met with senior world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2020. He’ll need to gain more experience on the world stage before succession, though. That might come when Phnom Penh hosts the ASEAN and East Asia Summits later this year.
Hun Sen, indeed, might be the person who most stands in the way of succession. However, that would only be the case if he quits politics on the same day he resigns as prime minister, which is highly unlikely. Or if his government somehow manages to cripple the economy and squander its political chokehold over the next few years, which is equally unlikely. Succession, instead, ought to be seen as a gradual process, not a single event in which the House of Hun passes on the political throne. In fact, the succession has in many ways already begun.