CPP officials said this week the ruling party’s powerful decision-making bodies, the standing and permanent committees, have not yet decided on who will lead the party after next year’s general election, contradicting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent claims that he was the CPP’s only candidate for prime minister.
The decision on who will assume the mantle of party boss—and most likely Cambodian prime minister—will not be announced until after the July 2003 general election, senior CPP members said.
“Right now we do not know who are the candidates and who will be the prime minister, because the candidates for the prime minister will not be announced until after the election result,” CPP loyalist Chea Soth said Thursday.
Chea Soth—one of the CPP’s Standing Committee and Permanent Committee members—said a draft list of candidates for prime minister and ministerial posts has yet to be drawn up.
“No one knows who will be the candidate. We will select who should be the prime minister based on their character, knowledge and relations with foreign countries,” Chea Soth said.
Chea Soth’s remarks followed statements by Heng Samrin, CPP first vice president of the National Assembly, who hinted on Wednesday that Hun Sen was not the only candidate for the coveted post.
“If Prime Minister Hun Sen announces that he will not continue as prime minister there are many people to be the candidate,” Heng Samrin said by telephone on Thursday.
“There are three people who can be the candidate for prime minister. But I do not want to mention who they are,” Heng Samrin said, adding that the official candidate will not be decided until after the CPP congress which is expected to be held in March.
Heng Samrin said that if Hun Sen wants to continue, the permanent committee would support him, but also divulged that Deputy Prime Minister and co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng was also a potential candidate.
“The official decision will be decided by a committee after the congress next year,” he said.
Since early this year, Hun Sen has stated he intends on staying in his position for another 10 years, and in October he declared himself the CPP’s only candidate.
“I wish to declare publicly, for CPP there is no other candidate besides Hun Sen. Only if Hun Sen withdraws himself or dies will there be a new candidate,” the premier told the National Assembly.
A CPP official close to Hun Sen said on Thursday that the draft list of candidates has already been drawn up and is led by Hun Sen, with Sar Kheng and CPP Secretary-General Say Chhum in reserve posts to assume the position if anything happened to Hun Sen.
“You can be sure Hun Sen is the one,” the official said, adding that other CPP members’ claims that a decision has not been made was their attempt to keep the media guessing.
“The are playing a guessing game. They don’t want to say. We have a lot of laughs [at the speculation in the media]” he said.
The official also said the candidate to lead the party would not be announced until after the election. Withholding the name was a CPP policy, he added.
Earlier this week Hun Sen again attested to his youth and ability to lead for another decade, saying, “The people who want to replace me are older than me.”
An Asian diplomat said on Thursday that his impression of Hun Sen’s recent statement proclaiming himself young enough to remain prime minister was either the opening round of his candidacy drive for the CPP position, or unofficial confirmation that he had been chosen as the party leader.
However, Heng Samrin’s statements may indicate that Hun Sen’s comments were only his “opening shots” in his campaign to remain the CPP’s most powerful member, the diplomat said.
He said Hun Sen’s public claims to the leadership position may have prompted other factions in the CPP to be more “media savvy” and go public with the fact that the position has not yet been decided on.
But divulging potential candidates other than Hun Sen was unlike the super-secretive CPP, which have always based its strength on keeping problems within the closed confines of the party circle, the diplomat said.
“This is not something I expected to see,” the diplomat said.
However, with its long-time rival Funcinpec appearing to be politically neutered, and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party not posing too great a political threat, internal CPP rifts may be coming to the fore, he said.
Reasons for the rumored problems are unclear, he added, but there are rumblings that Hun Sen’s faction has monopolized all of the lucrative positions in government.
But the rumors have circulated for 20 years, and it is unlikely any intra-party tiff will go very far, the diplomat added.
“Going by their track record…I would say it’s fine,” the diplomat said.
CPP stalwart Chea Soth also said the rumored splits were exaggerated by the media.
“It’s not like in the newspaper, who publish that there is a group of Chea Sim with Sar Kheng and Heng Samrin and [another group with] Hun Sen,” Chea Soth said.
Despite there being more than one candidate, the party was not fracturing, he said.
“I say faithfully there is no split in CPP. We work very strictly and our decision is always agreed together,” he said.
Hun Sen has also broached months of speculation in opposition newspapers that he was at odds with CPP President Chea Sim.
“Twenty years ago, there were rumors around the CPP of conflict between Chea Sim and Hun Sen, but we are united. Chea Sim and Hun Sen are both legs which cannot be separated,” Hun Sen said recently.
He blamed the rumors of a split on opposition party leader Sam Rainsy and said the opposition was stoking the rumors to take the spotlight off their own party’s internal wrangles.