For years, it has been an open secret that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been grooming his eldest son Hun Manet as his successor. But the announcement on December 2 came as a surprise, given that it did not seem urgent and the succession is likely to be merely prospective sometime later this decade. After all, Hun Sen, 69, has ruled Cambodia since 1985, enjoys continued good health, and dominates the country almost at will, as does his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. And therein lies the great challenge of the transition: how does someone who has acquired such a degree of power step down without disrupting the fabric of the party and the state?
Precisely for this reason, far more is at stake than simply a personnel matter at the head of the government. The office of government has always represented a personal security guarantee for Hun Sen and his clan. In his logic, a loss of power would mean a threat to his personal security and that of his family. Hun Sen cannot simply step down.
Hence, there is much more at stake than simply finding a successor to take over the leadership of the government. Instead, the real task is to reorganize political power in a nation where state institutions are challenged by informal institutions consisting of thoroughly personalized networks of power. The security forces, the state apparatus, and the CPP are the main pillars of the political system all dominated by Hun Sen. By contrast, Cambodia’s formal democratic rules have been effectively undermined by these networks, with currently only the CPP holding seats in parliament. In this de-facto one-party state, the next parliamentary elections in 2023 will do little loosen the CPP’s grip on the country.