By Noel Caballero
Bangkok Desk, Jul 24 (efe-epa).- Authoritarian Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has governed the country for 35 years, and although expecting to hold office for at least another decade, the leader has begun to position his eldest son, Hun Manet, as a possible successor.
Hun Manet, a 42-year-old three-star general and deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, is often seen at official events and this week he participated in a tour of three provinces where he presided over numerous ceremonies of the military, an indispensable ally on the path to power.
The prime minister’s son, who is beginning to stand out in pro-government media, was also appointed in early June as head of the youth wing of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a position that reserves him a spot among the 37 members of the permanent committee, a key body in the decision-making of the country.
THE EXTENDED SHADOW OF HUN SEN
According to Mu Sochua, the exiled vice president of the Supreme Court-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), while Hun Manet may be groomed to take over the reins, “the big leap to power is set with some major challenges that include getting out of his father’s shadow and gaining the trust of voters who are the seventy per cent of the youth in Cambodia who are social media-savvy and victimized by de-facto oligarchy of the Hun family,” she told EFE.
Meanwhile, at 67, the prime minister says he intends to renew his mandate for another two five-year terms, and that his three male children hold government positions thanks to his ‘good training,’ but rejects accusations of nepotism.
“As his father, I have to support my son and train him so that he is capable [for the position]… Even if he cannot be like his father, at least his capacity should match that of his father by eighty or ninety percent,” Hun Sen said during a speech broadcast on social media networks where he stressed that voters would have the last word.
“Cambodia is technically a parliamentary democracy where the figure of the prime minister cannot have any other successor than the winner of a general election,” said Marc Piñol, doctoral researcher and assistant teacher in politics at the University of Bristol and author of several studies on Cambodia.
“Hun Manet is emerging as a possible successor to office. He is in a position of power within the CPP and the Army… Predicting when that may happen is difficult: first he has to gain the trust of the Politburo and the various factions within the CPP, and second, win over the people,” he added.
Along with Hun Sen’s eldest son, several children of prominent CPP members were also promoted within the party’s youth wing, seen as a strategic move to approach the population under 30 years of age, which represents 65 percent of the total and key to maintaining power.
THE CRUCIAL VOTE OF THE YOUTH
“Young people today have experienced neither the civil war nor the genocide [perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime]. Most have not lived through the hardest post-conflict years or were very small. In part, that gives them another political perspective that, in many cases, is outside the networks of the CPP,” said Piñol.
This youth vote was already key in the 2013 general elections, in which, despite the fact that Hun Sen maintained power, the CPP suffered a historic crash and saw its hegemony threatened by the opposition CNRP.
The challenge to power was maintained in the 2017 local elections, before the government launched a campaign of political repression against the opposition, resulting in the dissolution that same year of the CNRP by the Supreme Court and the imprisonment or escape into exile of its leaders.
CAMBODIAN OPPOSITION IN EXILE
In mid-2018 and against an insignificant opposition, Hun Sen revalidated his mandate at the polls when his party won all 125 seats in parliament and Cambodia became a de facto one-party state.
Opposition members in exile try to put pressure on the Cambodian government, which they accuse of being corrupt and of systematically violating human rights.
“We have mounted a strong social media campaign focusing on economic, social and political issues, in particular during COVID-19,” said Mu Sochua.