The coming months leading to the next general election promise to be a somewhat busy period for the nation’s domestic politics, and one could expect to see significant movements for both the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

For the ruling party, the stage has already been set. On December 24 last year, the CPP held its 43rd congress during which its central committee, at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s behest, unanimously anointed his eldest son and de facto successor, General Hun Manet, as prime ministerial candidate for future elections. However, which election will actually see Manet running for the top post remains yet to be specified, which conveniently gives the incumbent prime minister full discretion and plenty of time to choose when the actual transfer of power will occur. And, that is not necessarily because he wants to cling to power as some have claimed, but more importantly because he needs to diligently ensure that Manet is ready and that the winning conditions are in place for the latter to succeed. The continuation of his political dynasty depends on it.

CPP 2.0

Manet’s official appointment didn’t come as a surprise. After all, he has been groomed for the top job for years. Ceremoniously on the paper, he checks all the boxes: West Point graduate, holder of PhD in economy from Bristol, head of the CPP’s youth wing, commander of the Royal Cambodian Army and deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), not to mention a charming public speaker – I met him once in person a few years ago in Montreal, Canada, during a dinner reception held in his honour as part of his North America public relations tour.

That said, there are inevitably open questions about his actual leadership, ability and readiness as they are largely unknown or yet to be tested. Over the years, he seems to have missed valuable opportunities – though it is unclear whether he has inadvertently overlooked or purposely shied away from them – at home and abroad that could in many ways prove his worth, make him shine and well prepare him for the top job.

One of such opportunities is the high-profile international diplomatic missions to the countries of utmost strategic importance to his eventual government – particularly China, Vietnam and the US. Had he held the official duties of ambassador and chief of the missions, he would have plenty of chances to get to know powerful political figures of these respective countries in person, their agenda, priorities and ways of thinking; and last but not least, be known.

What could have been his intimate knowledge, experience and cordial interactions with the decision makers of these countries are vital to his future premiership role as their policies have historically, and even more so today and in the foreseeable future, weighed heavily on Cambodia’s development, peace and stability. During the reign of Napoleon, Klemens von Metternich, an aristocratic Prussian diplomat, eloquently said: “When France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold.” Translation for Cambodia: “When Beijing, Hanoi or Washington coughs, Phnom Penh gets the flu.” Such unique relations or rather dependency dictate that he be well versed with political developments in these countries at all times, and be able to correctly decipher their often more-than-meets-the-eye policies and anticipate changes.

Another missed opportunity for him is high-impact-high-visibility civilian roles at home, such as being mayor of Phnom Penh or governor of a key province or a special economic zone, in which he could further develop his leadership talent, put it to work and earn a good reputation in the process. As head of the municipal or local government, he would be in the best position to introduce a fresh perspective and a new era of CPP, or CPP 2.0, to improve the lives and capture the heart and soul of the electorate, turn the undecided into believers and sway the international opinion.

The opposition doesn’t own the exclusivity of patriotism, rule of law, good governance and accountability. He has everything to gain by making them the main pillars of his CPP 2.0.

Manet’s readiness, perceived or real, will not be the only factor. There are two other key factors that could motivate, if not compel, Hun Sen to extend his premiership beyond 2023. One is South China Sea rivalry while the other is international legitimacy and recognition.

Any eventual high-intensity escalation of South China Sea dispute resulting from the broadening of US strategic pivot in the Indo-Pacific could strand Cambodia between a rock and a hard place, despite it having no claim in the dispute. Should such an eventuality materialise, there is an overwhelming possibility that he chooses to remain at the helm of the country to navigate through the troubled waters rather than pass on the responsibility to his less experienced son and make the latter bear the brunt of tough decisions or missteps, if any.

International Legitimacy and recognition

To the trained eye, it is obvious that Hun Sen’s succession plan encompasses two main objectives: to ensure not only the uncontested transfer of power to his eldest son at home, but also the international recognition of the latter as the legitimate country’s ruler. At the moment, the first objective is all but a fait accompli given his firm control of the party and the government apparatus. The same however can not be said for the second objective. And this is where new political dynamics could emerge and unfold.

Securing international legitimacy and recognition, or attempting to achieve them, will be his top priority for the upcoming 2023 election. As far as the international community and observers are concerned, an election is considered legitimate only if it is fair and open to all political formations.

To put it pointedly, the international community most likely demand and expect the incumbent prime minister to show tangible political openness vis-a-vis the banned opposition party – namely the CNRP – by reinstating it and allowing it to participate in the election.

Predictably, if we were to rely on several key events in the past, the premier will have no problem playing along on that point. But, as he has cleverly pulled off some other issues in the past, it will be under his own choosing terms. Reinstating the CNRP and allowing it to participate in the next election are not something that keeps him up at night. Instead, his main goal is to draw the wedge and break the bond of unity between former CNRP president Kem Sokha and its acting president Sam Rainsy, and it is unlikely that he would budge or compromise on that goal. That would be his condition for the CNRP’s reinstatement.

The Emperor has no clothes

According to some CNRP insiders familiar with the matter, the CPP is said to have repeatedly used such divide-and-conquer tactics and pressure on Sokha in the past but the latter has steadfastly stood his ground, at least up to now. While there is no doubt that Sokha’s unwavering stance on the alliance with Rainsy has continued to poke the CPP in the eye, it has nonetheless done little or nothing to advance the CNRP’s own agenda since the court dissolved the party in 2017. There are several reasons for that.

The Sokha-Rainsy-is-the-same-person mantra just doesn’t seem to stick or hold water anymore, and more people start to openly admit the emperor has no clothes. From the very top echelon to the grassroots, the party is riven with irreconcilable conflicts and deepening internal fighting between Sokha’s and Rainsy’s factions – often unrestrained and out in the open. Moreover, the two leaders exhibit increasingly incompatible leadership styles and diametrically opposed personalities. The former is perceived as a coolheaded and prudent, or perhaps a little too prudent, politician while the latter is the kind of politician who likes to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks – from botched homecoming-after-exile adventurism to pointless attacks on Manet’s overseas educational credentials to preposterous and repugnant insults to the King, just to name a few.

Fresh start over

Going forward, the promise of Sokha-Rainsy partnership is becoming increasingly elusive and wishful thinking. The burden is on Sokha now more than ever to face the real dilemma and make bold decisions – either to continue the current path in spite of unbridgeable internal division and at the mounting risk of fading into irrelevance over time, or to pull the plug on his (un)love affair with Rainsy and go separate ways. It is a classic case of “desperate time calls for desperate measures”.

At this juncture, although neither camp wants to admit it, the CNRP desperately needs a fresh start over just as the CPP badly needs international recognition for the outcome of the upcoming 2023 general election. The CNRP has to seize the momentum and act swiftly as the window of opportunity will not remain open indefinitely. For Sokha, his choices are limited as there is hardly any other viable option left at the moment. All things considered, it’s arguably far better to have an active voice in the parliament than to be confined to the house of arrest.

Davan Long is a political analyst based abroad. The views expressed are solely his own.