Analysis: Strongman no more
- Published: 29/07/2013 at 06:31 AM
- Online news:
Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia clung to power in Sunday's national elections, but lost his reputation as an immovable force.
Poll power: Cambodians, especially young voters, packed out all of the final campaign appearances by Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy, showing a new enthusiasm for the election process. (Reuters photo)
A surge at the polls by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) stripped away Mr Hun Sen's favourite title of "strongman" of his country, and left him vulnerable in parliament and within his own Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
Final counting will take days, but as of Monday morning unofficial election results showed 68 seats for the CPP and 55 for the opposition CNRP in the 123-seat lower house. At the last election, the Rescue Party captured just 29 seats in parliament.
The CNRP, led by the nationalist Sam Rainsy, reaped the rewards of hard work that organised an election campaign and turnout that could be the first sign of that a democracy is possible in Cambodia.
Few if any analysts predicted the stunning success of the Rescue Party. Until Sunday, the prevailing view was that Mr Hun Sen was likely to win the election handily, stay in office until he is 74 in 2027, and then turn over political reins to his three US-educated sons and create a true political dynasty.
In just 24 hours, the Cambodian voters made such a prediction highly unlikely.
Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), returned from overseas exile in the final days of the campaign. (Reuters photo)
Veteran Cambodia watcher and journalist James Pringle emailed from Cambodia early Monday that, "There is a possibility that Hun Sen will be challenged down the road for the leadership of his party."
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Sunday's vote to Cambodia, and to its neighbours. Mr Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge army officer, was installed as national leader by the occupying Vietnamese forces in 1985.
He deserves and usually demands credit as the charismatic - and often popular - leader who turned post-war, post-killing-fields Cambodia into a legitimate nation, which earned its respect at Asean, the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.
But the dark side he revealed as a Khmer Rouge soldier also showed. Now 60, Mr Hun Sen has trampled on human rights and quashed political dissent, including with tanks. His attempt to destroy Mr Sam Rainsy's political career has spanned almost 20 years.
In recent years, Mr Hun Sen has increased his claim to the "strongman" title, but often through brutality, insensitivity or worse.
His infamous campaigns to evict poor Cambodians from their land and award 99-year leases to big companies from Russia, China and South Korea have brought strong criticism. Indeed, boardrooms in those countries will be humming today with worry that the Sam Rainsy-led opposition could already be hatching plans to recover those lands. During the campaign, Mr Sam Rainsy personally made an election pledge to cancel all such leases if he were elected.
In addition, "It's a pity that Hun Sen had ordered the destruction of some major forests in the last months in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, along the Vietnamese border," said Mr Pringle. It could be more than a pity, but also an issue that brings even more blowback by Mr Hun Sen's political enemies in coming weeks and months.
Foreigners, including in Thailand, must temper their enthusiasm for the huge advance for Cambodian democracy.
The Rescue Party exploits the nationalist and often xenophobic side. While analogies are always inexact, it invites comparison with radical nationalists in Thailand such as the Thai Patriot Network, which welcomes confrontation and conflict along the Cambodian border.
During the election campaign, Mr Sam Rainsy and his top election aides - most of them headed to parliament - attacked foreigners and foreign interests in almost every local speech.
In particular, virtually every top member of the CNRP refers off-handedly to Vietnamese, including residents of Vietnamese nationality, as yuon, a strong, offensive and historically loaded ethnic slur highly resented by the Vietnamese.
(The same word, usually spelt "yuan" is known in Thai, and was frequently used as recently as the mid-1990s.)
During the campaign, Mr Hun Sen's supporters and party repeatedly called attention to the xenophobic undertones of the CNRP. Rescue Party candidates and supporters mocked them as servants of Vietnam, supposedly giving away territory to Hanoi in the guise of a commission currently trying to demarcate the border between the two countries.
Savath Pou, a survivor of the killings fields and human rights activist based in Australia, wrote last Friday that he feared an actual civil war, led by the two dominant political parties, with racial politics as the cause.
"When the CPP says they are Khmer, voted in by Khmers and working for Khmers, the CNRP says that all of the CPP's leadership and their supporters are yuon (Vietnamese) that they work for yuon, and are under the still firm control of the yuons," he wrote.
While the Rescue Party rhetoric against Thailand was muted, its symbolic victory on Sunday will result in new and stronger positions against Thailand in border disputes, particularly those affecting the Preah Vihear temple grounds at the Si Sa Ket border.
His election setback weakens almost all of Hun Sen's political policies, and that includes his attempts in the past two years go maintain a stable and positive relationship with Thailand, under the Pheu Thai Party of his old "friend", Thaksin Shinawatra.
Mr Hun Sen has emerged from Sunday's election a weaker leader, and never again will be seen as a true strongman, no matter which way his country may now turn.
But that may only make him more dangerous.
A strongman could invited Mr Sam Rainsy back from foreign exile, "request" that King Norodom Sihamoni pardon him for the (imaginary) crimes. A strongman can afford to be magnanimous, handing out favours even to political opponents.
A weakened leader no long able to trust his political organisers and voters is a prime minister of a different sort. The man who used coups, violence, military attacks and unspeakable dirty tricks to earn the title of strongman could easily revert.
Alan Dawson is a former United Press International bureau chief who covered Indochina conflicts for more than 20 years.
About the author
- Writer: Alan Dawson
Position: Online Reporter