The signs of an election campaign Cambodian style are beginning to show all over Cambodia, from pennants, bunting, little flags, to party symbols. Hardly a day goes by without some announcement or political statement by the protagonists. Speeches by politicians abound, albeit still without much of substance. Cleaning up the streets seems to be all the rage these days.
Hun Sen, the wiliest of them all, stole the show by persuading some higher-ranking opposition party members to join his party. He confirmed himself that he rewarded them with lucrative advisory positions in his government. He thus conveyed the impression to the population as a whole that the CPP must be the better party when even opposition party members defect the SRP and join the CPP. To the people on the street it is just normal you get a reward if you do something that’s good for somebody. After all, this is the country where you can obtain the title of Okhna from the King by donating $100,000 to the public coffers.
He cited his authority to hire these people as advisers in the face of an outcry by some other opposition politicians. It is rumored there are about 500 such advisers in total at a cost of $24 million per year, which undoubtedly would be a big drain of public funds, especially in the face of roughly half the national budget being financed by foreign aid.
No doubt, Hun Sen is a very controversial figure, berated and condemned by his opposition and most humanitarian organizations for his tolerance of corruption, presumed active participation in violations of basic human and civil rights, shady business dealings, and cronyism, among others. Certainly, his failures and shortcomings are abundant. Foreign governments and their diplomats express their misgivings and reservations in more guarded tones, couched in convoluted diplomatic language. But one has to hand to it to him; Hun Sen has learned how to play this game very adeptly.
But then, Cambodia has seen an economic growth unparalleled by any other country in S. E. Asia, a fact which underlines the donor nations’ contention that economic development and material well-being are the first step in a nation’s development and will automatically lead to better living conditions for everybody and the respect for human and civil rights. Additionally, donor nations no longer engage in ‘nation building’, as the U. S. president once called it. They assist but don’t really want to interfere directly or even meddle in another country’s affairs, especially a country without strategic and economic value. This hands-off policy has sometimes led to tragic consequences, as in Darfur, but those consequences are nowhere near reality in Cambodia, in spite of rampant land grabbing and forced evictions.
Hun Sen follows a time-honored Cambodian political tradition by playing off one power against the other. China has become the largest benefactor of Cambodia. Officials gleefully note that China is the best friend of Cambodia because it helps without any strings attached. Authoritarian China does not pay much heed to human rights either, so what right would they have to admonish other countries? If the West doesn’t want to lose its influence in part of SE Asia entirely they must play along, and play along they do. The donor nations have recognized that Cambodia needs Hun Sen more than it needs a regime change. They are aware of the detrimental consequences of a regime change to the country and its current stability, even if some see it as precarious.
Given the internal structure of the government and the fact that Cambodia is ruled by an oligarchy with Hun Sen at the helm, it is very doubtful there is any one person in Cambodia today that could replace him. He has shown great adroitness in handling and keeping in check both his opponents within his party and the military as well as conveying to the people as a whole that he is the best leader for Cambodia. The resistance any of the other contenders would meet would be too great to overcome. He would most likely be a failure once in office. Hun Sen has achieved progress on the economic front, established political stability, and personal freedom (although with limitations), with promises of more to come.
And the people are listening and they believe him. His message is the most credible one. There is no taste for political upheaval in the population. They just want to go about their lives and try to enjoy it as best as they can. 75% live in the countryside. They see what’s happening in Phnom Penh and the provincial capitals, and they believe and hope that these things will spill over to them sooner rather than later. Corruption is a fact of life for them. History has ingrained it into their minds. Outside the educated urban population, most don't even know the size and loss to the economy caused by it. To them the rich wield the power, and if it means they get richer because of that power, their stoicism accepts this also as a fact of life.
And all these people don’t really see any personality with substance that could lead the country better than Hun Sen on its path to prosperity and eventual more freedom. One runs on an anti-government platform and is seen as too weak by the majority – this includes the recently more affluent population in Phnom Penh. Another one runs on human rights and is dismissed as a non-starter. The royalists are in a shambles. Who else is there?
The Cambodian people also want continuity after the civil war and the turmoil of the past Communist regimes. Half the population is under 21 years of age. They did not experience that past. They have different things on their minds and are following in the footsteps of their Western counterparts in their materialism. With more economic development and wider-spread affluence, current idealistic thinking among the young urban population will wane, and they will be absorbed into the mainstream and become part of the establishment.
As unfortunate and sad as it may be to some, the answer is no. There is no alternative to Hun Sen. Discounting the years before 1993, Hun Sen has been prime minister for 15 years and will most likely continue to head the country for the next 5 years. The more progress he accomplishes in the coming years the longer he will be in power. In Europe there are no term limits and they have seen heads of state serving longer than 15 years, so Hun Sen’s reign is not unique.