Over the past three weeks, a standoff between the long-ruling CPP and newly strengthened opposition CNRP has made for an increasingly tense political environment.
But almost entirely missing from the equation has been Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose last public appearance was 18 days ago when he addressed villagers in Kandal province and warned the opposition that a failure to take their seats in Parliament would result in them being given to the CPP.
As opposed to his usual schedule of delivering nationally televised speeches almost every day—weighing in on everything from pressing political issues to personal trivialities—the prime minister has remained completely out of the public eye since August 2.
The prime minister’s silence comes amid a steady security buildup in Phnom Penh after the CNRP promised mass demonstrations if the CPP did not cede power and commit to conducting an independent enquiry of alleged election irregularities.
It also comes after the CPP suffered its worst showing in the National Assembly since 1998, just one year after Mr. Hun Sen ousted then-Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh from power in factional fighting that took place on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Still, officials on Tuesday said Mr. Hun Sen’s silence was warranted because he wanted to give space to both political parties to form a government and plan ahead for the next five years of CPP rule.
As the head of government during a time of partisan wrangling and potential social instability, it is important for Mr. Hun Sen to remain out of party politics, said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.
“He [Mr. Hun Sen] always keeps to himself during heightened tension. He lets the other mechanisms take care of their own responsibilities and address their own mandate,” Mr. Siphan said.
“The prime minister remains independent and lets the two parties work together,” he added.
Since meeting on August 9 to discuss the formation of a joint committee to investigate irregularities in Cambodia’s election, the CPP and CNRP’s cooperation has stalled. Mr. Siphan said that if talks continue to be fruitless, Mr. Hun Sen may step back into the partisan fray for talks with Mr. Rainsy.
“[I]f the [joint CPP-CNRP] committees cannot solve something, then it is time for Sam Rainsy and him [Mr. Hun Sen] to meet together,” Mr. Siphan said.
Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker and de facto spokesman for the party, said that Mr. Hun Sen has remained largely silent since the July 28 national election because he has been busy preparing for his next five years managing the country as prime minister.
“He is busy organizing the implementation of the party’s political platform to ensure that it meets the expectations set out in our platform during the election campaign,” Mr. Yeap said, adding that the party is also trying to figure out why its popularity has fallen sharply.
“We are busy evaluating why we lost support,” he said.
Political analysts said Tuesday that dealing with internal problems within a party that has seen a steep drop in its popularity, along with practicing caution in how the party deals with a significantly strengthened opposition, likely explain the prime minister’s silence.
“The prime minister always lets others talk and express all the issues and then he analyzes that information and finds a strategy to fight back,” said independent political analyst Kem Ley, adding that there were two directions Mr. Hun Sen could take in his response to the CNRP’s calls for reform.
“[Mr. Hun Sen] has a great opportunity to be smart in a good way, by [improving] rule of law and democracy strengthening, or a bad way, by cracking down on other parties to win,” he said.
Another political analyst, Lao Mong Hay, said that soul-searching in the wake of such a drop in popularity could have more to do with why Mr. Hun Sen has had little to say in public in recent weeks.
“We’ve seen that the top leaders of the CPP have not issued any public statements, apart from Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng. This reflects that there might be difficulty in determining the roles within the party and this needs to be resolved,” he said.
“The party members are old too, and they need to change. The CPP needs to rejuvenate in order to get back its popularity. But change is not easy,” said Mr. Mong Hay, adding that it was still the ruling party’s responsibility to explain public actions such as the mobilization of troops and movement of tanks.
“During these times, there should be someone high up equal to a minister in the government who appears in front of the public and explains the people what this is and why it is happening,” he said.