Notorious for keeping party issues behind closed doors, the CPP is unlikely to disclose much from the discussions that arise out of its twice yearly party congress today.
But even as senior CPP Senator Sim Ka affirmed on the eve of the congress that the party remains unified, signs of friction have emerged lately from behind the CPP’s public veneer of solidarity. And while party officials maintain that debate over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership will not be on the official agenda, some observers speculate that the issue will be unavoidable on the sidelines of the two-day meeting.
Hun Sen pushed the subject to the fore this month by publicly declaring his intention to remain in power for several more years. Twice this month, he has expressed he will seek re-election in the next national vote. On Tuesday, he declared the country would fall into chaos if he were to die or retire, and the entire government Cabinet would have to be dissolved.
On both occasions, CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin refuted the prime minister’s claims, suggesting that Hun Sen had made his comments too hastily and that the party’s candidate for the premiership could also be replaced by the party.
Speaking to reporters outside the National Assembly on Thursday, Heng Samrin, one of the founding members of the ruling party, reiterated that the government, and the CPP, could continue to run smoothly without Hun Sen.
“[Only if] there was a coup or murder against the prime minister, [then] supporters would react and struggle. Then chaos would come,” Heng Samrin said. “But if [the premier] were to die, or resign normally, his deputy will act until the next election.”
That replacement, he added, would be co-Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng—not Cabinet Minister Sok An, who is also a deputy prime minister.
The difference is significant. While Sar Kheng is related to CPP President Chea Sim—who was suddenly ushered out of the country while Hun Sen and Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh sealed the deal on forming their current coalition government in July—Sok An is known to be staunchly loyal to Hun Sen.
“If [Hun Sen] is away due to any reason, the only successor must be [Sar Kheng] acting. It is nobody but him,” Heng Samrin said. “Sok An is not the first” in line for the position.
Raising the example of late prime minister Chan Sy of the State of Cambodia, who was replaced by Hun Sen upon his death in 1984, Heng Samrin said Hun Sen would be similarly replaced if he were to suddenly be unable to carry on as prime minister.
“When His Excellency Chan Sy died of illness…Samdech Hun Sen, then foreign minister, took over the position as acting prime minister for five to six months” until the National Assembly voted him into the position, Heng Samrin said. “So the current situation would be the same, not different from the past.”
Heng Samrin added that the prime minister was mistaken when he said the Cabinet would have to be dissolved upon his death or retirement.
“Nothing like that was stated in the Constitution,” Heng Samrin said. “It is impossible.”
According to Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, the CPP may be experiencing a power struggle within its ranks as it formulates the party’s strategy for the future.
As “in any political party, they may have some problems with people who are in power,” Koul Panha said. Some within the CPP may feel they have not been given the power they feel owed to them, he said. “Some members…think of change because they work within the party and want to benefit.”
The CPP’s support for Hun Sen appears strong publicly, he added, “but maybe internally, inside [the CPP], Hun Sen may have some problems. He may not be as strong [as] on the outside.”
The party also appears be experiencing some growing pains as it evolves from being a socialist/communist party to a democratic and capitalist one, Koul Panha said.
“I think they lost their ideology. During communism, they were very strong about supporting farmers, workers and the poor,” he said. “But recently, you can see the leadership of the CPP has turned capitalist…. Some members do not respect the ideology anymore.”
Still, he said, ideology does not appear to be the driving force behind any possible rifts in the CPP. The root of the issue, he said, is simpler: “Power sharing.”
Kek Galabru, founder of human rights group Licadho, agreed that the CPP appeared to be struggling with its new democratic image. But, she said, whatever disagreements may take place within the party, the CPP has done well in maintaining unity.
“Inside the party, you always have internal problems…. But look, they are mature enough to take that aside and work for the party,” she said.
That, according to CPP Senator Sim Ka, is how the party intends to remain.
“So far, the CPP stands firm and united,” he said. “We are working together for the common interests. We don’t have any split.”