Hun Sen Dynasty Strengthens Grip on Cambodia’s Politics

Hun Sen's Dynasty Strengthens Grip on Cambodia's Politics

Hun Sen's Dynasty Strengthens Grip on Cambodia's Politics

Cambodia’s ruling party secures a triumph in the Senate election, paving the way for strongman Hun Sen to assume the presidency. This win solidifies the Hun family dynasty’s control over all of Cambodia’s political institutions.

Following the recent Senate elections in Cambodia on February 25, the ruling party secured 55 out of the 58 available seats. As a result, former prime minister Hun Sen is anticipated to return to the forefront of politics as the new president of the upper chamber, based on the preliminary results released by the National Election Committee on Monday.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen now holds the majority of seats in both parliamentary chambers, in addition to controlling all but four of the country’s 1,652 commune chiefs.

Over 11,000 commune councilors and National Assembly lawmakers elect 58 senators indirectly in Cambodia’s Senate elections. Furthermore, National Assembly lawmakers and King Norodom Sihamoni each appoint two additional senators.

Hun Sen stepped down as prime minister last year after serving in the position for nearly four decades, passing the reins to his eldest son, Hun Manet, who is a military chief. Notably, a significant portion of the new cabinet members are either children or relatives of former ruling elites.

Despite resigning as prime minister, Hun Sen retained his position as CPP president and assumed the role of head of the Supreme Privy Council, which is equivalent in rank to the prime minister. However, it seems that Hun Sen also decided to take on the role of Senate president.

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Is there a move to control the monarchy?

Hun Sen's Dynasty Strengthens Grip on Cambodia's Politics

According to CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan, Hun Sen will resume his position as president of the upper chamber in April. This would effectively make him the de facto head of state, especially when King Norodom Sihamoni is out of the country. Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Arizona State University, explains that Hun Sen desires this role to have an official presence in Cambodian politics. Despite his previous influence, some may question why he still seeks such a position.

One argument is that Hun Sen aims to solidify the power dynamic between the CPP and the monarchy. Currently, the ruling party and the Hun family do not have complete control over the monarchy, making it the only Cambodian institution that remains independent. While Hun Sen already has the king’s ear as head of the Supreme Privy Council, the Senate presidency would allow him to exert even more control over the king’s actions.

King Sihamoni often travels to China for regular health checkups when the CPP government wants to pass controversial laws. This allows the Senate president to sign the bills into law, sparing the monarch any potential backlash. Additionally, the Senate presidency grants Hun Sen and Hun Manet the opportunity to sit on the Royal Council of the Throne, which is responsible for selecting the Cambodian monarch.

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A Comeback to International Politics

Some experts suggest that Hun Sen’s new position will enable him to re-enter the realm of international politics, a domain he has been unable to access due to his previous roles lacking the official capacity for international travel or meetings with foreign dignitaries.

Ear stated, “With his extensive experience and long tenure as Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen will utilize this opportunity to strengthen Cambodia’s global relations and advance both his own and the CPP’s strategic objectives.”

This move will grant him diplomatic credibility, facilitate the formation of strategic alliances, enhance his international reputation, and empower him to wield soft power, ultimately allowing him to re-engage in international affairs.

Cambodia’s international standing suffered a blow following the CPP’s authoritarian actions in 2017, which included the dissolution of the main opposition party. In response, the European Union imposed limited trade sanctions in 2020. However, Hun Sen took steps to mend relations in 2022, culminating in a significant state visit to France that same year – a trip also undertaken by Hun Manet the previous month.

Throughout Cambodia’s 2022 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Hun Sen demonstrated a strong desire to showcase his diplomatic skills on the global stage, according to Astrid Noren Nilsson, a senior lecturer at Lund University’s Center for East and South-East Asian Studies in Sweden.

Nevertheless, she suggested to The Diplomat News that Hun Sen may prefer to allow the younger generation of leaders to assume a more prominent role on the world stage whenever possible.

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The Hun Family’s Influence Permeates Cambodia’s Political Institutions

The Hun family has taken control of Cambodia’s political institutions, which could be the reason behind Hun Sen’s decision to re-enter front-line politics.

Hun Manet is currently leading the government and overseeing various influential social organizations within the CPP. Meanwhile, the youngest son of Hun Sen, Hun Many, actively serves as the Minister of Civil Service, leads the nation’s largest youth organization, and recently assumed the role of the 11th deputy prime minister.

Last year, another son, Hun Manith, assumed leadership of military intelligence and earned a promotion to deputy army chief. Additionally, Hun Sen’s other children and extended family members have significant control over key sectors of the business community and other political entities.

In addition to consolidating power, Hun Sen’s appointment as Senate president allowed him to oust Say Chhum, who belonged to a rival faction within the CPP, as pointed out by Noren Nilsson.

Last year, Khuon Sodary took on the role of president of the National Assembly, presenting as a relatively weak figure but maintaining loyalty to the Hun family.

Fading Opposition

The opposition parties in Cambodia are facing a bleak future. They have been struggling to find a way to effectively participate in politics ever since the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was the most successful opposition party in decades, was dissolved in 2017 under false accusations of planning a coup.

Despite winning nearly 2,200 commune councilors in the local elections of 2022, the Candlelight Party, which emerged as a successor to the CNRP, was barred from competing in both last year’s general election and this month’s Senate election. The National Election Committee claimed that it could not provide the necessary documents, sparking controversy.

In October, the Candlelight Party allied with three other parties, including the Khmer Will Party, in an attempt to strengthen their position. With the Hun family now holding complete control over all political institutions and no elections scheduled until 2027, the question arises whether opposition politics in Cambodia has come to an end or if the current generation of opposition leaders should step aside to make room for a younger and more vibrant group of contenders.

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