When Cambodians go to the polls on 28 July it's odds-on that Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) will be returned to office. This result will continue the CPP's political dominance, maintained since 1997, and will extend Hun Sen's position as the world's longest-serving prime minister. He took office in 1985, well before the UN-brokered Cambodian settlement of 1991.
As the elections have loomed, external commentary on Cambodian developments has been overwhelmingly critical and very much focused on Hun Sen himself. This is not surprising given the extent to which the Prime Minister's record, and that of the CPP, is associated with pervasive corruption and an atmosphere of impunity for those linked to the governing party. Among more recent and useful Australian commentaries pointing to the manifold ills of contemporary Cambodian politics are those in The Diplomat and New Mandala.
So will anything change once Hun Sen is returned to power?
The short answer has to be 'no', despite the fact that Phnom Penh watchers have begun to sense indications of unease within the CPP at the manner in which Hun Sen has dominated the party and the country.
It may be, as some of these watchers suggest, that there is renewed factionalism within the CPP. If this is the case, it is not for the first time and it seems likely that the chess-playing Hun Sen will be able to check these tendencies. Other commentators ask whether Hun Sen's public persona, marked by marathon campaign speeches, is wearing thin with voters, particularly the rural population. Again I'm sceptical, since what to outsiders can seem like a boring experience may not seem the same to a community that has long regarded extended expositions from its leaders as both normal and even welcome.
What little chance the opposition parties might have to dent the CPP's dominance is undermined by Hun Sen's readiness to act ruthlessly and to use dubious legal manoeuvres to exclude candidates from running. Sam Rainsy, the opposition's most prominent politician, is in exile, fearing to return in case he is jailed, while in June the Government removed the parliamentary status of 27 opposition members, so preventing them from running as candidates in the elections.
Hun Sen's opponents are also handicapped by their own ineptitude. The most recent notable example was Kem Sokha's indefensible claim that Vietnam fabricated the Tuol Sleng extermination centre (S-21) to discredit the Khmer Rouge.
Against this unpromising background, there is one other element associated with Hun Sen's political dominance that receives too little attention: his diminishing of royalty's role in the Cambodia polity. Hun Sen's determination that the Cambodian royal family, and particularly the king, should not play a political role has been a leitmotif of his prime ministership. It led to his often sharp exchanges with Sihanouk once the latter had returned to the throne between 1993 and 2004, and to Hun Sen's ensuring that the current king, Norodom Sihamoni, strictly observes his constitutional role.
Hun Sen has also occasionally carried out public roles that were once the preserve of royalty, such as the Ploughing the Sacred Furrow ceremony, and he has increasingly sought to associate his name with a 16th century Cambodian king, Sdech Kan (Korn), who rose from peasant origins to occupy the throne. According to some accounts Hun Sen stated in 2009 that he was, in fact, a reincarnation of this king.
Other commentators argue that Hun Sen is not explicitly claiming reincarnation but rather seeking to associate his name with Sdech Kan as a testimony to his right, at very least, to enjoy a co-equal measure of prestige within Cambodian society with that accorded the monarchy. Hun Sen has sponsored the writing and publication of a biography of Sdech Kan and welcomed the erection of statues of the king throughout the kingdom. And it is hard not to note the implied symmetry between his own rise to power from obscure origins and that of the historical figure.
In all of the activity associated with the forthcoming elections, one other element is beyond dispute: Hun Sen's readiness to be closely associated with China and to act in ways that suit this most important provider of foreign aid. This readiness was translated last year into Cambodia's readiness to do China's will in relation to the South China Sea issue, making him a difficult partner within ASEAN. Just how long this Cambodia-China nexus continues is impossible to say, but it is most unlikely to fall apart in the near future.
Photo by REUTERS/Sukree Suplang.