Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been consolidating power since the death of his long-time rival, Chea Sim, in June.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party had been losing its appeal. That was highlighted in 2013, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party and other opposition parties surged at the polls. But the passing of the CPP president has presented Hun Sen with the opportunity to regain political momentum.
On June 20, the day after Chea Sim's grand funeral in Phnom Penh, 508 CPP members gathered to elect Hun Sen as his successor. Ever since Sim's health concerns became known, the prime minister had made clear his desire to succeed him by openly saying he would be the next party leader.
The latest development may even give the prime minister of 30 years the chance to set up his own political dynasty.
On July 23, Hun Sen summoned 5,000 senior military and government officials to give instructions relating to border disputes with Vietnam and increased vigilance regarding dissident, all with the aim of boosting morale.
It is unusual for such a large number of senior officials to assemble in one place. "The gathering may be seen as Hun Sen's attempt to strengthen his power base," a CNRP official said.
During his three decades as Cambodian prime minister, which began in 1985, Hun Sen could not outrank Chea Sim within the party. In 1991, Chea Sim became party president, securing its No. 2 spot after CPP honorary president Heng Samrin. Hun Sen was the party's No. 3.
Differing political goals led to further tensions between the two rivals. Sim was a conservative set on unifying the party, while Hun Sen concentrated on strengthening his reformist faction.
Koul Panha, executive director at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a nongovernmental organization, warned, "Now that Chea Sim, who had effectively controlled the CPP, is out of the picture, the balance of power within the party will be lost." According to Panha, Sim's presence helped check any potential abuse of power by the prime minister.
Hun Sen's government was steadily losing support to opposition parties. In the last election, the CPP suffered a stunning setback, the first dramatic decline in the past five elections under Hun Sen's leadership, scaling back the party's seats from 90 in 2008 to 68.
Opposition parties have increased their support base through changes such as raising the minimum wage by a whopping 28%, the largest year-on-year increase in Southeast Asia. The opposition parties' popularity was so great that there was speculation that Hun Sen might not be able to win the next election, and that he might not run for prime minister.
Speaking at an April opening ceremony of a palm oil processing plant at Sihanoukville, Hun Sen announced his resolution to confirm the electorate's confidence in him in the upcoming 2018 election. "The [CPP] candidate for the premiership will remain Hun Sen for the [next government] and forever. Nobody will replace Hun Sen, and the CPP will win again," said Asia's longest serving leader.
In a bid to regain the nation's trust, and push for faster development, Hun Sen, well-known for his friendliness toward China, is hoping to tap Chinese money. For Beijing, which hopes to increase infrastructure exports to Southeast Asia, the Cambodian prime minister's interest is welcome. In fact, China is already financing a number of development projects in Cambodia.
One of these is "Diamond Island", a 100-hectare development next to the Mekong River and several hundred meters east of Aeon Mall Phnom Penh, a commercial facility that opened in June 2014.
As observed from signboards at the site revealing details of the designers and construction companies building properties there, projects are being led by Chinese interests. Led by Cambodia's Canadia Bank, the development has such businesses as Sino-Pacific Construction Consultancy and China Construction as its main contractors. Many workers on the construction site also appeared to be Chinese.
Riviera is a $700 million development including condos towers and a 200-meter-long swimming pool similar to Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
The development project's main draw card is Riviera, consisting of high-rise condo towers. Its main feature will be a 200-meter swimming pool spanning three connected 38-story rooftops, similar to Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It is said that the property shows Hun Sen's aim to develop Cambodia into one of Asia's richest nations, similar to Singapore.
Many people suspect that Hun Sen is also trying to emulate Singapore's past penchant for choosing leaders from within the same family.
Keeping it in the family
In March, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, and the nation's prime minister for 31 years between 1959 and 1990, died at 91. He handed power to his son Lee Hsien Loong by promoting him slowly through the ranks from deputy prime minister to leader.
Hun Sen has two prospective heirs, his sons Manet and Many.
Manet, 38, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is deemed heir apparent, but one CPP official said that his ambitions seem more military than political.
Many, 33, meanwhile, has been serving as Hun Sen's private secretary, learning from his father how to better serve and govern the nation. The younger of the brothers is also better-connected within the party as he is the CPP's youth movement leader. He seems to have political aspirations, possibly emerging as the most promising successor to his father.
Hun Sen has never publicly discussed a successor. However, now that he is both president of the CPP and prime minister, it may be an ideal time for him to tackle succession issues.
One political analyst said that, given the expanding influence of the opposition CNRP, the outcome of the next election will depend on the leader's actions, including any transfer of power to younger leaders.
Nikkei Asia Review