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Election Surprise Tests Hun Sen’s Popularity, CPP’s Future Plans

By and – July 30, 2013

In the month leading up to Sunday’s national election, the face of Prime Minister Hun Sen was omnipresent in Cambodia.

Every few meters along the main boulevards in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen, depicted on Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) campaign banners, smiled and waved at passersby. In the provinces, the prime minister was shown on large roadside billboards, folding his hands in respect to villagers or seated in a rice paddy and wearing a krama.

In his speeches in the months leading up to the election, Mr. Hun Sen placed himself at the center of the CPP’s campaign platform.

–News Analysis

Prime Minister Hun Sen holds up his inked finger after voting Sunday morning at Kandal Provincial Teachers Training Center in Takhmao City. (Lauren Crothers/Cambodia Daily)

Prime Minister Hun Sen holds up his inked finger after voting Sunday morning at Kandal Provincial Teachers Training Center in Takhmao City. (Lauren Crothers/Cambodia Daily)

“If Cambodians sympathize with me, like, love and are satisfied with my leadership and have confidence in me, Hun Sen, for leading our country to the peace, stability and development that now exists, please vote for the Cambodian People’s Party,” was a common phrase in Mr. Hun Sen’s speeches as elections neared.

Mr. Hun Sen campaigned on the Hun Sen platform; the physical embodiment of the CPP’s achievements.

While the CPP claimed victory in Sunday’s election, it was with a considerably reduced majority, a result that political analysts say could indicate a decline in Mr. Hun Sen’s support and popularity as the country’s long-time prime minister.

Officials inside the CPP, however, said Sunday that despite their electoral chastening, Mr. Hun Sen faces no risk of being replaced as the long-standing face of the ruling party’s prime minister.

“The victory means that people accept that Prime Minister Hun Sen will lead the country,” CPP National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun told reporters at the Phnom Penh Hotel on Sunday.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, also said Sunday that the election result “doesn’t represent a reflection on Hun Sen’s popularity.”

“The number [of seats in Parliament held by the CPP] still re­flects that Hun Sen enjoys a general popularity and the majority of people need him to be around,” he said, adding that Mr. Hun Sen was already taking the lead in ensuring the CPP’s future success.

“The CPP is one step ahead already. The youth are a growing power in Cambodia’s nation. The CPP, we understand that we can modernize the CPP for new coming youth by maintaining economic growth, social justice and integrating into regional and global markets,” Mr. Siphan said.

But according to Kem Ley, a political analyst and researcher for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the resounding message sent by the Cambodian people over the weekend was that satisfaction with the administration of Mr. Hun Sen has plummeted.

“The results show that Prime Minister Hun Sen reserves much lower popularity. Also his leadership style and management of reform of the government did not reflect the real situation of Cambodian needs,” Mr. Ley said.

Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said the significant downturn in popularity expressed at the polls for the CPP will mean new pressure on Mr. Hun Sen for reform from both the emergent Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and people within his own party.

However, Mr. Thayer doubted that Mr. Hun Sen would be willing to lead fundamental changes in the government over which he has presided for so long.

“I don’t think Hun Sen is going to be the guy who stands up and says, ‘I am the guy who got it wrong and we need to fix it,’” Mr. Thayer said.

“I don’t see the Hun Sen regime responding to this election in a reform way. They are not going to change land grabs, not going to change corruption. Re­form will be superficial because there are too many en­trenched interests,” he said.

But if the CPP sees that popular discontent with Mr. Hun Sen continues to rise over the next five years of his leadership, it may have no choice but to seek a different direction, Mr. Thayer said.

“[The CPP’s] fear is that change would lead to destabilization, so they would want to minimize reforms. But as the next elections come they may realize that maintaining the status quo is self-defeating,” he said.

“Within the CPP itself, the people close to the center of power…may need to tell the emperor he has no clothes,” he added.

John Ciorciari, Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said that Mr. Hun Sen, the man and prime minister, has become so interwoven with the fate of the CPP that it would be almost impossible to separate the two.

“The CPP is so closely identified with Hun Sen that the election is as much a referendum on his leadership as the party’s. But even if some CPP members read the election results as a poor reflection on their leader, it is far from clear that any dissident faction would be able mount enough support to risk challenging the prime minister,” Mr. Ciorciari said in an email.

Ros Chantrabot, a member of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and an adviser to Mr. Hun Sen, said that it was the CNRP who had singled out the prime minister in its calls for “change” during election campaigning.

“[T]he opposition called for change referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen, not the political party,” Mr. Chantrabot said.

“It seemed that the election was not to elect the party, but was a contest for the prime minister’s position instead,” he said, adding that the result of the election was proof that popular support remained behind Mr. Hun Sen.

The election result was not only a measure of the leadership of Mr. Hun Sen, but a wake-up call that Cambodia’s electorate is no longer willing to settle for the CPP’s promises of stability and basic de­velopment, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

“I think the result says a lot, not just what the Cambodian voters thought about the leadership of Hun Sen, but also it showed the extent to which the political landscape of Cambodia has been shifting,” he said, adding that, still holding a popular mandate to rule, Mr. Hun Sen is unlikely to make significant concessions that might risk his hold on power.

To respond to falling support for the ruling party, the CPP would need to lead “political reforms through the strengthening of democratic institutions. But this may require sacrifice on the part of Hun Sen, which is unlikely,” Mr. Chachavalpongpun said.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who released Sunday’s results showing that the CPP had ceded 22 seats in Parliament, called the election a “wake-up call for [the] CPP,” though he credited a “racist campaign” and “empty promises” by the opposition for its success in the poll, in which it gained 26 seats.

“Despite the vitriolic racist campaign…despite empty promises, Cambodian people chose CPP. In the same time, this is also a wake-up call for [the] CPP not to sleep on its realizations. We need to improve our work,” he said in an email.

“But the strong point of [the] CPP is that this party has the ability to readapt to change and knows how to take advantage of the most difficult situation,” he added.

Such adaptation, said Cambodia historian David Chandler, may mean that while Mr. Hun Sen may not be vulnerable to being dropped as his party’s pick for prime minister in the short-term, the latest polling results may force him to make concessions to his political rivals in order to fulfill his promise of staying in power for decades to come.

“[T]he results may speed up his [Mr. Hun Sen’s] promised departure at 74. I’d say a lot depends on what happens in the next few weeks—not for his handing over power but to see if he is impelled to alter his modus operandi to accommodate some of the pressures put on the CPP by the opposition,” Mr. Chandler said.

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Written by Kham

31/07/2013 at 8:41 am

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