After nearly four decades as Cambodian leader, Hun Sen goes into elections this weekend certain of victory and vowing to eventually hand power to his eldest son.
But the 70-year-old has given no timeframe for his dynastic succession and signalled he will continue to wield influence even after standing down.
Sunday’s vote is widely deemed a sham thanks to the near-total absence of genuine opposition parties, and critics say that more than 30 years after UN-brokered peace accords ended decades of bloody conflict, Cambodian democracy is in a sorry state.
“Nobody can block the steps forward of Hun Sen or Hun Manet,” the prime minister told voters in June.
“After Hun Sen, it will be Hun Manet.”
While no fixed date has been given for a transfer of power, Hun Manet, 45, has taken on a number of his father’s campaign duties this year.
In a highly symbolic gesture at a rally for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) this month, Hun Sen passed the party flag to Hun Manet, who led a crowd of supporters on a march through Phnom Penh.
Hun Manet has also travelled around the country to preside over ceremonies and meet soldiers, workers and CPP members, repeating his father’s campaign mantras of peace and development.
“As long as the CPP continues to lead the country, can keep the peace and can keep balance, we all live with happiness,” he said in a clip posted to Telegram this month.
‘Like North Korea’
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told AFP that the prospect of a dynastic handover “makes Cambodia look more like North Korea than a genuine democracy”.
Hun Sen has five children and has carved out political roles for all three of his sons, with the most senior responsibilities entrusted to his eldest.
Hun Manet, already a member of the CPP’s powerful permanent committee, will contest a parliamentary seat this weekend for the first time.
He has served as commander of the Royal Cambodian Army since 2018 and met with foreign dignitaries and world leaders including President Xi Jinping of China — Cambodia’s main ally and benefactor.
Hun Sen’s politics are shaped by his experiences of revolution and war as a young man during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
Those privations moulded him into one of the most effective — and most ruthless — politicians of his generation and thrust him into the prime ministership in 1985, aged just 32.
He has since consolidated his power by co-opting, jailing, sidelining or effectively exiling any opponents.
By contrast, his son was raised in luxury and educated abroad, including at the US military academy West Point.
But a Western education is no guarantee of a more liberal approach, exiled politician Sam Rainsy, a longstanding foe of the prime minister, told AFP — pointing to Syria’s brutal Assad dynasty.
“Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is more educated than Hafez al-Assad, but the son is politically worse than the father,” he said.
Sebastian Strangio, author of a book about Hun Sen’s rule, told AFP that so far Hun Manet had shown “little evidence that he will introduce anything more than cosmetic reforms to the current political system”.
Without his father’s backing it is not clear Hun Manet would be able to make changes even if he wanted to.
And he remains untested in the political arena, said political analyst Ou Virak, comparing him to an unproven, if well trained, martial arts fighter.
“The problem is he’s been spoon-fed, mostly with a golden spoon,” Ou Virak told AFP.
“You put them in the ring, they are going to get knocked out first round. You have to allow them to fight, to spar, to survive,” he said.
Hun Sen, 70, was hospitalised for “exhaustion” in Singapore six years ago and was a heavy smoker for most of his life until recently kicking the habit.
But he has given no indication of exactly when he intends to step down and has also told voters he will continue to exert power after leaving his post.
“Although Hun Sen won’t be the prime minister, the political management will be still in the hands of Hun Sen,” said the leader, who habitually refers to himself in the third person in public speeches.
He told voters at the end of June not to worry and said he would not let his son damage the country.
“I am still the PM candidate, and my son is the future candidate.”
Sam Rainsy, who was banned on Monday from running for office for 25 years for urging people to spoil their ballots, told AFP that without “a new leader drawn from outside the Hun family”, there would be no change to Cambodia’s autocratic political system.