Hun Manet will need to prove he is worthy of the premiership after his father's long authoritarian rule. Image: Facebook

At US$30 million, the cost of the Cambodian People’s Party’s new headquarters in Phnom Penh was a drop in the ocean for a ruling party with its hands deep in the pockets of the wealthy. But opening the gaudy symbol of power (always distrust those who like massive doorways) was a sign of something more symbolic – a new, shiny renewal for a party about to undergo a generational shift.

Recent weeks have seen greater speculation than usual about a dynastic handover in Cambodia, likely to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, 43, who now commands the military, is a member of the ruling party’s elite Permanent Committee, and was made head of the party’s youth structure last month.

Recently Hun Sen, 67, has also spoken more often than usual about succession, oscillating between it being a sure thing soon or a mere possibility a decade from now. This has attracted commentary, from journalist Luke Hunt in The Diplomat (“Hun Manet Still a Long Way From Cambodia’s Top Job” on July 8) and academic Kimkong Heng in The Interpreter (“Hun Manet: A Cambodian dynasty?” on June 26).

Having written about this for years, I made an attempted of own in Asia Times last week (“Cambodia’s dynastic succession coming into view”), which was chiefly about foreign relations. Noting a recent Hun Sen comment on his son (“the first concern is whether the party would accept him. The second is the general elections”), my contention was that there is a third option, and that is whether Cambodia’s foreign allies would accept him, which, I reasoned, they would.

Yet given that we hacks aren’t allowed unlimited space, I had to cut paragraphs from my article, which had explained why I thought, in certain circumstances, Hun Manet’s succession wouldn’t be as tricky as some pundits make out – which, naturally, meant I received some messages from readers claiming I had given the chances of succession too much probability and ease.  

Now, allow me to try and expand.

First, where are the other alleged factions? Luke Hunt offers up Say Chhum, 75, president of the Senate, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, 69, both of whom are CPP vice-presidents. They are powerful and senior.

But though Sar Kheng might have been a viable alternative a decade ago, his faction – which he inherited from his late brother-in-law Chea Sim – has been weakened in recent times. This was seen best as early as 1999 when Ke Kim Yan, a Chea Sim loyalist, was removed as the military’s commander-in-chief and later given the comparatively trivial role of heading up the Interior Ministry’s anti-narcotics task force.

Who else? Defense Minister Tea Banh, 74. Probably not. It might have been possible to imagine Sok An – Hun Sen’s right-hand man who ran the government “like a Hindu god of 48 arms,” as some said – as a replacement, but he died in 2017. Note, here, that the numerous committees and chairmanships Sok An dominated were divided out after his death, ensuring that no other politician had as much central control as him – a way of Hun Sen weakening potential opponents.

Moreover, any rivals within the military have been cleared out. Before the 2018 general election, three of the most senior military officials were “retired” so they could campaign to become CPP politicians in parliament (another sign the military is the party’s armed wing) and, after they were elected, either stepped down or became Hun Sen’s advisers in dull subcommittees.

Second, let’s look at the Hun family. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, it was possible to say that the CPP had as much power as the Hun clan. Not any more. Besides Hun Manet’s positions – which now include de facto leadership of the military; de jure control of the party’s youth movement and youth hierarchy; and numerous other postings in the party’s subcommittees and national working groups, as well as his extensive outreach in the business and charity sector – there are his relations’ positions, too.

One brother controls the military intelligence unit; another the country’s largest youth organization. His sister runs much of the Khmer-language media and the family’s business network, including ties to Western firms. His mother controls much of the party-linked charity sector, including the Cambodian Red Cross.

Then there are other relatives. Hun Manet’s wife, Pich Chanmony, is the daughter Ministry of Labor Secretary of State Pich Sophoan, and herself chairs many companies – one is the exclusive supplier and retailer of South Korean multinational LG Electronics. Almost ever member of the Hun family is married to the offspring of another senior CPP politician.

Next, we need to look at popularity. In a country where the average age is just shy of 26 years, Facebook is important – that’s why Hun Sen is one of the most followed politicians in the world on the social network, the result of some long-term thinking as well as buying followers.

As I write, Hun Manet’s Facebook page has almost 759,000 followers, more than pretty much any other CPP official, other than his father. Sar Kheng’s page has only about 267,000 followers and is rather impersonal. Hun Manet’s, by comparison, boasts professional photos, snaps of his home life and inspirational messages – similar to his father’s.

On top of that, Hun Manet now spends much of his time handing out graduation certificates, opening hospitals and schools, speaking to workers and rubbernecking with the public, typically cross-country engagements his father performs.

Whenever one speaks about succession, a question that needs consideration is: Which is more likely, the CPP survives without the Hun family, or the Hun family survives without the CPP? My take is the latter.

The considerable industrial-business-military-media complex tied to the ruling party depends on the Hun family – and, with Hun Manet as de facto head of the military, it would be extremely risky for another CPP official to try usurping Hun Sen’s chosen successor and lose the support of the armed forces in the process.

In fact, what the majority of senior CPP members want is continuity, the assurance that they will continue to hold arbitrary power and benefit from corruption. Perhaps some “princelings” have delusions of grandeur, but Hun Sen has built a system where almost no one can possibly replace him – unless, of course, he helps them replace him.

Indeed, if other party members tried forcing out Hun Sen’s chosen successor, the CPP would likely crumble from power – and with it the possibility for self-enrichment. What Hun Manet would need to show is that he can make sure the party wins elections (however they are rigged) and keep open avenues for graft and enrichment.

This is most probable with his father’s help – and with the backing of China, Cambodia’s closest ally, which was likely the reason Hun Manet accompanied his father to Beijing in February to meet President Xi Jinping. But if the party breaks out into open revolt, this won’t be possible. If it backs a rather unpopular and aging new leader, like Sar Kheng, it’s less likely.

It is important to remember (though rarely discussed when the debate arises) that it’s almost certain in the event of a handover that Hun Sen won’t exit the political stage. Most probably, he will still pull the political strings from behind the scenes, with Hun Manet as a figurehead in the first few years. (This, I sense, is perhaps what Hun Sen means when he says he will stay in power for another 10 years – as CPP president, not PM.)

Indeed, Hun Sen took the CPP presidency when Chea Sim died in 2015, rather than giving it to an up-and-comer. This means he can remain CPP president even if Hun Manet is prime minister and remain front-and-center during campaigns.

This might also allow him to return to frontline politics if the party showed signs of strain (in much the same way as East Timor’s Xanana Gusmao has rotated between frontline and behind-the-scenes politics over the decades whenever the time suits).

Also, Hun Sen has his own people spread out across ministries, national working groups and subcommittees. In other words, he would maintain control over the party apparatus and civilian government apparatus even out of office.

When a handover takes place is another matter. If successful, it will need to be done sooner rather than later. Hun Sen will need several years (in good health) pulling the strings behind the scenes. My sense is that he will want a stable political and economic environment before a handover.

The latter is possible very soon, with Hun Sen likely to finish off the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for good. He easily prevented exiled leader Sam Rainsy and other senior members from returning to Cambodia late last year.

Kem Sokha, the opposition party’s other leader, who was arrested for treason in September 2017, is still awaiting trial, but most pundits reckon he will be prosecuted and then swiftly pardoned on the condition he disengages in politics. If that happens, a proper CNRP comeback would be dead before it begins.

As for other potential opposition figures, Hun Sen has coaxed them into joining the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendation, which has almost no power.  

For sure, the economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic will probably delay a handover, though if the economy is rebounding by next year, which is likely, a handover would make sense during an upward swing – and before the next general election, planned for 2023.  

A final point to make is that, rather than factional clashes, one should instead speak about generational disputes. The political jockeying and infighting going on right now within the CPP has, most likely, more to do with who takes positions other than the prime-ministership. Instead of, say, Sar Kheng trying to become the next PM, he is more likely trying to make sure his own children rise up the ladder alongside Hun Manet.

Indeed, if Hun Sen wants to instigate a dynastic handover, this would have been be done throughout the party. In other words, a dynastic handover across the party, wherein the “princelings” move up as their parents move out. Who inherits which ministries and government departments; who gets certain corruption-networks and control of lucrative state bodies; who takes on relations with tycoons; et cetera will need to be hammered out, possibly not just through gentle discussion.

In that sense, we should talk about a party succession, not just a Hun Sen succession. Making sure as many grandees as possible are content with such a generational shift will be difficult – but, if achieved, like the party’s new headquarters, it would indicate the party’s permanence in politics. As Hun Sen said last month, he envisages his Cambodian People’s Party to be in power for one hundred years.   

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno