Fresh from a Singapore hospital where he was treated for extreme exhaustion over the weekend, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday stood before a group of wealthy fundraisers and made clear it was business as usual.
“Do not expect Hun Sen to die,” the prime minister bellowed at a fundraiser for the Cambodian Red Cross. “How can he die if he is now standing and speaking—and speaking so loudly, too?”
Sixty-four-year-old Mr. Hun Sen assured an audience of philanthropist tycoons that he was healthy, and there was little evidence to suggest otherwise.
But an image posted on Thursday to his Facebook page of a strongman looking unusually vulnerable in a hospital bed has raised a sensitive question: Who will take over as CPP party chief—and, depending on timing, prime minister—when the man who once vowed to rule until he is 90 retires, falls ill, or even dies on the job?
And as the ruling party’s apparatus has coalesced around the figure of Mr. Hun Sen and his allies, could his succession provoke instability in the party and even the country?
The question also came up in June 2014, when rumors swirled on Facebook that Mr. Hun Sen had suffered a debilitating stroke and been whisked to Singapore for treatment.
“If I really had a stroke, you should pack your bags and prepare to run,” Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech a few days after the rumors spread. “I say that honestly because there is only one person who can command the armed forces and they don’t want Hun Sen to die.”
The scenario is addressed by Article 125 of the Constitution, which calls for a provisional appointment to the office in the case of a temporary vacancy. A permanent vacancy, however, would require the National Assembly to select a new Council of Ministers, and with it, a prime minister.
Mr. Hun Sen said in 2007 that he wanted to retire at age 90, but backtracked on the claim in 2015. In a speech in 2013, he gave his ideal retirement age as 74, which gives him less than a decade left in office.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan on Monday referred all questions on succession planning to CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, who could not be reached for comment.
Political analyst Cham Bunthet said the topic was likely to be deeply sensitive for the party, even though he believed the prime minister was still healthy.
“If he passes away right now, I think the country would fall into crisis,” Mr. Bunthet said.
A smooth succession would require careful planning and delicate conversations that party leaders might not want to risk having, he said.
Succession planning might also expose generational gaps within the party, pitting stalwarts like CPP vice presidents Sar Kheng, the interior minister, and Say Chhum, Senate president, against the prime minister’s sons Hun Manet and Hun Many.
“A lot of people resist change, even inside the party,” Mr. Bunthet said. But choosing a younger leader “would give the CPP a lot of room to maneuver” compared to keeping the old guard.
As the oldest and most visible of Mr. Hun Sen’s three sons, speculation about the premier’s heir apparent has long settled on Lieutenant General Manet, who holds a stable of posts that include heading the Defense Ministry’s counterterrorism department and serving as deputy commander of his father’s bodyguard unit.
That impression solidified last year, when the 39-year-old traveled to Australia and the U.S., greeting supporters and granting interviews to international media as protesters picketed outside with “Never Manet” signs.
In an interview with Bloomberg in April last year, he seemed to distance himself from some elements of his father’s legacy.
His younger brother, Hun Many, has also tried to step away from their father’s more threatening rhetoric, but in January last year told the Associated Press he one day wanted to become Cambodia’s leader, asking to be judged on his performance and not his name.
Mr. Many, the premier’s youngest son who was elected as a CPP lawmaker in 2013, had earlier tossed his name into contention in 2015, when he said in a radio interview that his goal was to become prime minister.
“And it should be the goal of other youths,” the then 32-year-old quickly added.
The coming national elections next year might prove a decisive moment for the family, according to Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at Lund University who has studied Cambodian politics extensively.
“Rallying popular support would gain the Hun family the legitimacy to undermine contenders within the CPP, at the same time as each election provides an opportunity to advance the positions of the new generation of the Hun family,” she wrote in an email on Monday.
But the moment of succession might also provoke instability, Ms. Noren-Nilsson said.
“The most likely scenario appears to be a power struggle between different elites within the CPP, in which control over military forces will be paramount,” she said. “Such a scenario might open up for societal protests.”
Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” went a step farther.
“I don’t see how this goes down smoothly, frankly,” he wrote in an email. “Orderly succession is preferable to disorderly succession, but this should be decided by the people through something called democracy, something increasingly abstract in Cambodia.”
“It is often said that only Hun Sen can keep the CPP together because without him the factions would go at each other,” Mr. Ear said. “Kind of like [Josip Broz] Tito in Yugoslavia, and so many other leaders no longer with us.”
It’s not clear whether even Mr. Hun Sen has a plan in mind.
“Now, the thing we have to think of is, what is the stage after Hun Sen?” the prime minister asked during an interview with U.S. filmmaker Robert Lieberman in last year’s documentary “Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia.”
“That is the question among the Cambodian people and the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said. “It is my own thought too. Who will be after Hun Sen? What is the post-Hun Sen era?”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)