Partyforumseasia: Prime Minister Hun Sen’s once famous iron grip on power is increasingly showing fatigue. Ruling as Prime Minister for 32 years and approaching a normal retirement age of 65 coming August, Hun Sen is by no means prepared to give up, and certainly not inclined to see the main opposition party CNRP take over. The official results of the 4 June commune elections have just been released by the National Election Committee, and the Prime Minister’s reactions are telling.
Driving his potential personal nemesis, long-term CNRP leader and rival Sam Rainsy into exile by debatable accusations and convictions, Hun Sen has once again pulled out all authoritarian campaign stops by threatening turmoil and civil war in case the CNRP would win. There were also reports that truckloads of soldiers were sent into “shaky” constituencies to tip the scale in favour of the ruling CPP. But, and that is not self-evident, the election was overall peaceful and well organised.
The results show at the surface a dominant ruling party but the details are not promising for a continued dominance in the 2018 general election.
Despite all the intimidation, the popular vote difference between CPP and CNRP, 50.8% to 43.8% or just 7%, is not really a fantastic victory for the ruling party and PM Hun Sen. His campaign rhetoric, to be fair, has probably been influenced by the self-predicted chances of the CNRP to win and take over the communes, especially the continuing provocative statements of Sam Rainsy in exile. All that can be taken as election and campaign fever which happens often enough anywhere.
The signs, however, that Hun Sen feels “touché” are coming up now after the official results are finally out.
Even for a battle-hardened politician like Mr Hun Sen who has never been known for velvet gloves and mincing his words, his statements during the last few days sound extraordinary. On 21 June, during an emotional re-enactment of his crossing over to Vietnam and defecting from the Khmer Rouge in 1977, the Prime Minister “suddenly took a sharp turn in his mood to quell any confusion about his recent warnings of renewed (civil) war and appeared to directly threaten to kill present-day political opponents. “Your tongues will be the motive for the war,” Hun Sen said, in an apparent reference to the opposition. “If you all keep talking about insults and the threats to kill, you all must prepare your coffins already.”
(The Phnom Penh Post 22 June, LINK)
But the ageing battle horse also proves to draw correct conclusions from the progress of Cambodia’s opposition. Since all including the drastic coffin threats don’t seem to be reliably effective, Hun Sen has started to look into the shortcomings of his own CPP. In a speech on 26 June at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh, he criticised the arrogance of power of CPP office holders: “The people’s dissatisfaction stems from our behaviour,” and “Please pay attention to your wives and children.” (The Cambodia Daily, 27 June. LINK)
The Prime Minister mentioned several cases where wives or children of higher officials had been saved from judicial prosecution despite severe offences. Impunity of those in power is always causing resentment among the voters, especially in a country where status symbols like big villas and big SUVs are easily equated with the political upper-class among the CPP members.
The 2018 parliamentary election will show whether threats and self-criticism can save the ruling party for another term. The younger generations (the median age is 24!) have no memories of and little interest in the bloody Khmer Rouge past of Cambodia. But they need jobs and career perspectives and may set their hopes more on the CNRP and its liberal economic programs than on the CPP with its old-fashioned image and ageing leadership.