As the master angler of Cambodia’s admittedly small political pond, Prime Minister Hun Sen is the king of catch and release.

Such appears to be the case with Nhek Bun Chhay – once a formidable military commander in the 1990s with a loyal following, and now a leader of the splinter royalist political party, the Khmer National United Party. Bun Chhay was released on bail late Monday night – a rare occurrence in Cambodia, where pre-trial detention is the norm rather than a last resort, resulting in prisons across the country being crammed to three times their capacity.

The release is one minor concession in the wake of widespread repression – a small mercy that projects the image that Cambodia’s political crackdown is not as absolute as the situation on the ground suggests.

Indeed, past events show there’s a long history to the premier’s cycle of repression and release. Meanwhile, analysts say, in a tense election that badly needs the appearance of competition following the dissolution of the main opposition, a small fish like Bun Chhay could be more valuable swimming free.

“From a distance, it seems consistent with Hun Sen’s M.O.: tighten the screws, and then release the pressure at a strategic juncture to secure maximum political benefits,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

Perhaps the clearest example of the tried-and-true tactic 'is when the premier permitted then-opposition leader Sam Rainsy – who had been forced into self-imposed exile – to return to the country just days ahead of the 2013 national elections. The move saw an unprecedented groundswell of support for Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, which rattled the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. However, the technique stretches back decades.

In 1997, Hun Sen overthrew his then co-Prime Minister and Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a bout of bloody factional fighting, forcing the prince into exile only to coax him back to compete in the next year’s elections – an episode from which neither Ranariddh, nor his party, ever recovered.

More recent examples include the hounding of opposition leader Kem Sokha, Rainsy’s successor, in relation to an alleged prostitution case, resulting in months of de facto house arrest at his party’s headquarters, only for him to receive a reprieve six months out from last year’s commune elections.

Shortly after those elections came a month of swift arrests. First was Bun Chhay on August 4, ostensibly in relation to decade-old drug charges, though the arrest came hot on the heels of a leaked phone call in which Bun Chhay appeared to strike a deal with the CNRP – by far the nation’s largest opposition party at the time, and the only one to pose a legitimate challenge to the CPP.

Second was the arrest and snap trial of Sourn Serey Ratha, head of the tiny Khmer Power Party, over a Facebook post criticising the government’s recent military stand-off with Laos.

But most significantly, after making unprecedented gains at the commune level, Sokha was arrested on September 3 on allegations of “treason” and the CNRP was forcibly dissolved in November, with its elected positions redistributed to fringe parties – including the KNUP.

While the ruling party may have cleared away its only viable competitor, it also provoked an international uproar. Since the dissolution, the US and EU have withdrawn funding for this year’s elections, which observers have contended cannot be considered legitimate without the CNRP’s participation. With a chorus of critics decrying what they characterise as a slide into one-party rule, the ruling party has feverishly sought to maintain an appearance of multi-party democracy, albeit to little apparent effect.

Former Khmer Power Party President Sourn Serey Ratha, seen in handcuffs, gets out of a police vehicle following his arrest in early August of 2017 in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Last week, the EU publicly acknowledged that it would be taking the extraordinary step of sending a team to review its General Scheme of Preferences with Cambodia – raising questions about the future of tariff-free access to one Cambodia’s largest trading partners. The pressure was reaching a head.

Days later, Nhek Bun Chhay walked out of jail.

“While it would seem that the [Cambodian People’s Party] has the upcoming election neatly sewed up, perhaps Hun Sen views him as a figure who can help diversify the electoral field just enough to gain some international credibility, while remaining too marginal to pose any real threat to the CPP’s power,” Strangio said.

“I suspect [Bun Chhay] is being readied, like the recent trickle of new parties, as a Potemkin alternative to the CPP,” Strangio said.

Political scientist Astrid Noren-Nilsson, however, said she doubted Bun Chhay “has any desire to be a political counterweight to the ruling party in the upcoming elections”.

The release of political rivals, such as the pardon for Sam Rainsy immediately before the 2013 elections, nonetheless “helps sustain the facade of elections, but does not leave these leaders enough time to organise and compete”, according to Lee Morgenbesser, author of Behind the Façade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.

But on this score, Morgenbesser said, Hun Sen’s repression and reprieves make him the exception rather than the norm among other dictators, who often keep their opponents behind bars with no hope of release. Such concessions, he added, likely hinge on the “magnitude of the threat the opposition leader poses”.

It also feeds into the “main strategy” ahead of the elections: namely, “the need for as many minor opposition parties to compete as possible, while the major opposition party (the CNRP) remains outlawed”.

“To the uninformed observer, this will create the impression of healthy competition existing in Cambodia,” Morgenbesser said.

The KNUP is the only party other than the CPP to hold a commune chief position following the reallocation of the dissolved CNRP’s seats. That the KNUP candidate, formerly of Funcinpec, took the Banteay Meanchey slot is a testament to Bun Chhay’s popularity potentially rivalling that of the legacy royalist party he once helped to lead.

While the KNUP could potentially siphon off some disaffected former CNRP voters, it and Funcinpec – given their overlapping history and membership – will likely still be fighting over the same relatively small group of royalist voters. Now, with the CNRP gone – and the possibility of it cooperating with the KNUP neutralised – the KNUP will return to its status as a nonthreatening contender with a modest, albeit geographically limited, following.

The dissolution of the main opposition, Morgenbesser said, “will help splinter CNRP supporters, who give their votes (if they vote) to an assortment of peripheral parties”. The resulting illusion of competition, he continued, will be marketed internationally as “electoral integrity and foolishly bought by the likes of China, Japan and, possibly, Australia”.

Political analyst Ou Virak also thought the move was part of a “grand plan” centred on the mere appearance of a free and fair election. “The illusion of choice would be sufficient, as long as people believe it enough to go out and vote,” Virak said. “Voter turnouts would be the most interesting thing to watch since the outcome is pretty much determined.”

Historically the government has held convictions – or the spectre thereof – over their political rivals as a sword of Damocles, effectively neutering their political effectiveness. It’s a position Bun Chhay – who is out on bail, not pardoned – now finds himself in. Though as Virak points out, whether there’s an existing legal case against a politician is a moot point, as the “threat of prison is hanging over most” political actors regardless.

Politics in Cambodia, he said, is “risky business”.