Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia March 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has unilaterally excused students from having to sit final exams. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

At first blush, 2019 should be a doddle for the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which marks 40 uninterrupted years in power on January 7.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party faces no domestic challenger after a pliant Supreme Court forcibly dissolved the only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in November 2017.

Without the CNRP on the ballot, the CPP won virtually unopposed all but four seats in the Senate in February, and then all 125 seats in the lower house National Assembly at July’s general election. It already controlled the vast majority of locally elected positions.

But forging a one-party state was far easier in 2018 than consolidating such a system will be in 2019. Indeed, next year will be one of the CPP’s most challenging years to date. The main threat will come from abroad.

The United States has already imposed limited sanctions on senior CPP officials and two bills currently in the US Senate, if passed, will escalate them, placing punitive measures on Hun Sen and his inner circle. In November, the European Union started the process to withdraw Cambodia from a preferential trade deal, which if fully implemented in 2019 will severely cripple Cambodia’s export-driven economy.

Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) irons clothes at a factory compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Most exports, especially garments, the largest contributor to Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP), are sold in European markets. Some 800,000 workers are employed in the garment sector, and perhaps two times this number rely on it financially.

Any crash of the sector would precipitate a downturn in other economic areas like property and agriculture, which could lead a wider collapse.

At the same time, the CPP government will face a resurgent CNRP, now led by its former president Sam Rainsy, who took over as the party’s acting president in December despite being in exile since late 2015.

It wants to be formally reinstated as a political party and, with Sam Rainsy again at the helm, says that nothing short of this will be acceptable. Along with Sam Rainsy, many of the party’s senior officials, most of whom have been in exile since late 2017, say they will return to Cambodia in 2019 and appeal for nationwide protests.

If it plays it’s hand well, the CPP will not only elude foreign sanctions, it will also destroy what remains of the CNRP and secure its political dominance for at least the next decade. If it fumbles, however, the CPP will jeopardize years of fast economic growth and its own domestic support from the Cambodian public.

As 2018 drew to a close, the CPP was plotting a path towards appeasement. Soon after July’s election, several activists and CPP critics who had been jailed received royal pardons.

The government also allowed independent newspapers and radio stations that were closed in a clampdown to resume operations.  It has also promised reforms of the judiciary and civil service, both key demands of democracy-promoting Western governments.

In a more prominent gesture, Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president who was arrested for treason in September 2017, was moved from prison to house arrest after spending a year in pre-trial detention.

Further placating some opposition members, the National Assembly passed in December amendments to the political parties law that could allow some of the 118 CNRP politicians who were banned from politics for five years in November 2017 to return to politics.

Kem Sokha supporters outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader, Phnom Penh, September 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Against this easing background, three scenarios could take place in 2019.

First, the CPP could do yet another U-turn and rather than continuing to ease political restrictions instead ramp them up again. Second, it could do the opposite and give into all the demands of the international community, including reinstating the CNRP as a legal entity, and allow all of the party’s banned politicians to return to politics and release Kem Sokha without trial.

However, neither of these two scenarios are likely. The first would inflict maximum economic damage, as even greater political repression will certainly fast-track Western sanctions.

The second scenario, on the other hand, would impose maximum reputational damage on the CPP. For more than a year, it has said the CNRP and its leaders are treasonous and the party’s return to politics non-negotiable.

A volte face, however, would be an admission that either a “treasonous” party can have a place in Cambodian politics or that the ruling party has been lying all along about the CNRP’s alleged revolutionary intent.

The third, and most likely scenario for 2019, sits somewhere in the middle. The CPP government will almost certainly allow some of the banned CNRP politicians, most likely the more reticent ones, to return to politics, as signaled by the legal changes made in December. Hun Sen has already said that each banned CNRP politician will judged on a case-by-case basis.

Some analysts believe that Kem Sokha will likely receive a swift trial in early 2019 and then receive an even quicker royal pardon, possibly allowing him to return to politics again. For years, the CPP has aspired to divide the CNRP and a pardon for Kem Sokha could further estrange him from Sam Rainsy, the party’s grandees.

In this scenario the CNRP won’t be allowed to reform as a political entity, but its politicians could form a new party. This won’t be of major concern to the CPP as the next election won’t take place until 2022.

Hun Sen drops a ballot into a box during a Senate election in Takhmao, Kandal province, February 25, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

If the government quickly pursues this scenario in the first few months of 2019, it will force the hand of the US and EU to either act or withdraw their sanctions threats. The above mentioned concessions, analysts say, would likely be enough to prevent sanctions.

After formally starting the procedure in November to withdraw Cambodia from its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, the EU still hasn’t drawn up a list of its demands. It has said, however, that it wants Kem Sokha released, restrictions lifted on civil society and an expansion of political pluralism.

The US is making similar demands. But, at the time of writing, the two punitive bills currently in the US Senate appear unlikely to be passed anytime soon amid a partial government shutdown. The bills’ sponsors say that they will reintroduce them next year.

If the US and EU drop their complaints and withdraw sanctions, the CNRP’s chances of legal reinstatement would likely collapse without the outside pressure. So far no major protest against the party’s dissolution has taken place inside Cambodia.

Sam Rainsy now depends largely on support from foreign politicians and the Cambodian diaspora. If the CNRP fragments, the CPP will likely be able to rule for years unchallenged; at July’s general election more spoiled ballots were cast than votes for the second and third-placed parties.

The CNRP leader, who has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015, seems prepared to up the ante to avoid such a scenario. Despite the threat of arrest, he said in December that he will return to Cambodia in 2019.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Facebook posts by some senior CNRP officials claim that he will lead other exiled party politicians in a “return to the motherland” by April, possibly to coincide with Khmer New Year.

Speaking from Paris in December, Sam Rainsy asked CNRP supporters in Cambodia to “rise up and join me” at the time of his return, an appeal for nationwide unity among opposition supporters.

A large protest and violent government reaction is possible if he returns. But it is just as likely that he will be immediately arrested upon arrival, because of a number of convictions against him. “I have already prepared handcuffs and prisons,” Hun Sen reportedly retorted in December, referring to Sam Rainsy’s promised return.

Sam Rainsy’s last stand, as his return to Cambodia would be, will depend on whether the CNRP remains united, which is far from certain. By the end of 2018, divisions within the CNRP were gaping, if not irreconcilable.

Those loyal to Kem Sokha, whose Human Rights Party merged with Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party in 2012 to form the CNRP, claim that Sam Rainsy is using the current situation to leverage total control of the party.

But Sam Rainsy and his followers claim that, given Kem Sokha’s detention, someone needs to take charge. Moreover, they say, caution must be cast aside if the CNRP is ever to become a political entity again.

Sam Rainsy has called the government’s easing of political restrictions a “trap” to assuage foreign governments without actually improving the political situation domestically. His promised return to Cambodia, Sam Rainsy appears to think, would force Hun Sen to revert to tyrant mode and reignite Western governments’ ire in the process.

A copy of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper with a front page image of Hun Sen shaking hands with Donald Trump, November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Yet it is also possible that the US and EU will lose interest in Cambodian affairs in the year ahead if graver geopolitical issues emerge.

Indeed, there is a suggestion that Washington and Brussels only care about what happens in Cambodia because of Phnom Penh’s close ties to China, now its main ally and financial backer. If Western relations with China improve in 2019, so too might Western relations with Cambodia.

A protean politician, Hun Sen has over the past four decades often put his own personal disputes aside for the sake of the party’s dominance – or at least bided his time to exact revenge. But today he wields far more influence over the party than in previous decades and it’s not altogether clear the 66-year-old leader is as rational a political actor as previously.

Hun Sen says that he will stay on as prime minister until the end of his current term in 2023, and perhaps even longer. But analysts detect the signals of a possible dynastic power transfer, most likely to one of his sons.

Most pundits have their money on Hun Manet, who was made one of the most senior officials in the military in 2018. But dynastic transitions are rarely straightforward, and Hun Sen will likely want to wait until the CPP is at its most secure and dominant, which won’t be in 2019.

Because of the rigged nature of the July election, it’s uncertain how much the Cambodian public actually supports the CPP. Roughly a quarter of eligible voters either boycotted the poll or returned spoiled ballots, despite the government’s threat that any voter who participated in the CNRP’s call for a “boycott” would be considered traitors.

But the CPP’s popularity will drop considerably if it cannot maintain social stability and economic progress, two potential casualties of the current political impasse.