Can competitive elections come back to Cambodia?

On 26 July 2023, just days after the general election, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen announced that he would step down and his son, Hun Manet, would succeed him. He proclaimed that the election was the moment that legitimised the succession, showing that Hun Manet had the popular support to become the country’s next prime minister.

The succession plan was accelerated after the watershed 2013 election — the most competitive general election in recent times — when Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) received a clear signal that political change was needed to revive the party’s declining support.

The new legitimation strategy that saw the children of party leaders succeeding their fathers as government leaders was expected to offer an invigorating political shakeup that the country’s growing youth population desperately needs after more than 40 years of CPP rule. But the generational change only went ahead after the demise of competitive elections. Hun Manet and his new government’s success in turning Cambodia into an upper-middle-income country by 2030 — a goal set by Hun Sen — can determine if competitive elections could return.

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