For the fifth time in the past 20 years, Chea Sim addressed the Cambodian People’s Party Congress in March as the party’s president, a position he has held since the party changed its name to the CPP in 1991.
In his speech, 80-year-old Mr. Sim assured the some 2,000 CPP members at the congress that their long-ruling party would again win the July national election with a landslide vote, and extend their power to 2018.
“During the past five years, the CPP has continued to expand and strengthen its achievements in politics, people’s minds and in control,” Mr. Sim told the congress.
It turned out that Mr. Sim’s confidence in his party’s unstinting popularity was misplaced. The CPP did officially win the election, but the party lost 22 seats in parliament to the fledgling opposition CNRP.
Despite calls for an investigation of the July vote, the CPP has pushed ahead with forming a government, which was voted in by only 68 CPP members of parliament in the National Assembly. The CNRP’s 55 lawmakers-elect boycotted the inaugural session of parliament, and are rallying support at home and abroad for their view that the new government is unconstitutional.
Though the elderly, and quite often ailing, Mr. Sim is the CPP’s supreme leader, one can hardly blame him for his party’s worst election result since 1998. The CPP’s election campaign was firmly in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose cult of personality and personal power defines the very fabric of the party regardless of those with more senior titles.
Alongside the time-tested posters of the CPP’s leadership triumvirate—Mr. Hun Sen, Mr. Sim, and CPP National Assembly President Heng Samrin—thousands of new posters featuring a solo Hun Sen were rolled out across the country during the election campaign season.
The ruling party’s pre-election mantra also focused on the prime minister: “If you love Hun Sen, vote for the CPP.”
Now, despite the prime minister delivering a poor election result for the CPP, Mr. Hun Sen’s position within the ruling party is set to elevate when the thorny subject of a new president of the CPP becomes an issue.
“Samdech Hun Sen is the future for the CPP presidency position if Samdech Chea Sim resigns or stops from his position for any reason,” CPP lawmaker and spokesman Cheam Yeap said last week.
While, Mr. Sim is still strong enough to lead the party despite his occasional bouts of ill health, Mr. Yeap said Mr. Hun Sen is also ready to step in, and has received the support of the CPP’s 34-member standing committee, of which Mr. Yeap is a member.
“Samdech Hun Sen is already in the position as the deputy leader of the party, and no others in the party can compare with his capacity and experience in leading the party,” Mr. Yeap said.
Nguon Nhil, a CPP standing committee member and the first deputy president of the National Assembly, said that as long as Mr. Sim remained the party’s president, the official decision to name his successor would not be made.
“Samdech [Chea Sim] remains alive so it’s not proper to reveal who will be the next party’s president. But the party is already preparing who will be the next [president],” Mr. Nhil said.
Chheang Vun, a CPP lawmaker and spokesman for the National Assembly, as well as Phay Siphan, a CPP secretary of state and spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said they were not aware of future plans for the CPP presidency, and Yim Leang, deputy chief of Mr. Sim’s cabinet, declined to comment.
“I don’t know about this because it is the internal affairs of the party,” said Mr. Vun. “If Mr. Cheam Yeap has said so, he may know.”
Bou Thang, a CPP-appointed senator and member of the CPP’s standing committee, likewise said the successor to Mr. Sim was the internal affair of the party.
“Why do you want to know?” Mr. Thang said, before hanging up on a reporter.
While Mr. Hun Sen may be feeling the pressure after the surprise July election, his leadership credentials are still formidable. He oversaw, since his promotion to prime minister in 1985, the creation of a political machine that controls every state institution and maintains the loyalty of more than 95 percent of the country’s 1,633 commune chiefs.
“Hun Sen is, in terms of effectiveness and achievement for the party, much better than Chea Sim,” said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.
“And so far, I have seen no credible replacement,” Mr. Mong Hay said, adding that the prime minister has also succeeded in meeting the demands of a vast patronage network as he has consolidated his power.
“So far, the CPP has been able to accommodate all [of their patrons] when in power. It has been able to create public offices for them, and they have been contented, if not happy,” he said.
“The trend in the CPP is that the prime minister is very influential,” said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, adding that most of the standing committee members had won their posts by showing their loyalty to Mr. Hun Sen.
“Clearly the prime minister’s popularity has declined, but his power still remains very solid within the party because of his alliance with the military and with the police forces. He has some family connections through marriage and all of that relationship building, so his power remains solid,” Mr. Kol added.
The CPP’s unity behind Mr. Hun Sen may give the party strength in the short-term, said Mr. Mong Hay, but concentrating power in one man carries inherent risks for the country. And while Mr. Hun Sen may retain the loyalty of powerbrokers within the party, this year’s election showed that many lower-level party “members” decided against casting their ballots for the CPP.
At the CPP congress in March, Finance Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Rabun boasted that the CPP had more than 5.9 million card-carrying party members in a population of about 9 million eligible voters.
Yet, the CPP received only about 3.2 million votes in July, meaning that self-professed ruling party members must have voted for the opposition.
“I think this 2013 vote proved that many members of CPP are not happy,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
“If they don’t adopt a new version [of governance], the health of the party [will decline] and they will face a lot of risks,” Mr. Panha said.
“They should learn how to remain a healthy political party and create a new democratic structure—sharing of power, no fixed leadership—even communist parties in China and Vietnam do this,” he said.
“I think the CPP should look to modernize their party,” Mr. Panha said, adding, however, that in the immediate post-election period, the CPP government has “proceeded with classic or traditional behavior.”
While the CPP may have decided that Mr. Hun Sen remains their best chance to retain power, it is likely that he will have to change his leadership style in order to retain support from inside the party, said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
“Party members will place a premium on preserving the CPP’s hold on power in the face of challenges by Sam Rainsy and the opposition. But, at the same time, party members will be giving Hun Sen close scrutiny,” he said.
“If Hun Sen in his new role as party chief [when he becomes president] disregards constructive criticism within the CPP, and concern mounts about the CPP’s future political future, we could see destabilizing in-fighting,” he added.
“But for the moment Hun Sen appears in an unassailable position in the near term.”
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)
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