In July, I argued in this column that Cambodia’s political succession was more likely around the time of the 2028 general election than the 2023 ballot. But succession plans are developing quickly, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Prime Minister Hun Sen steps down next year.
Hun Sen, in power since 1985, has never been an easy figure to read. He’s often contradictory and is one of the most protean politicians around. He managed to claw a co-prime minister role after losing the 1993 election by threatening the secession of several provinces. He defeated his power-sharing rivals through a brutal coup in 1997. He outfoxed the rising Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) through niceties and then brutality in the 2010s. The Phnom Penh Post paraphrased him as saying this week that “one of his strengths that makes his rivals unable to win is that he is unpredictable, explaining that they have wrongly judged him and that even the [ruling party] ranks have been unable to predict his next move.”
Yet it’s been known for years that he eventually wants one of his sons to succeed him. Last December, Hun Manet, his eldest and the de-facto military chief, was named by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as its prime ministerial candidate once Hun Sen resigns. That was the first step. The second was for Manet to form a circle of younger party officials around him who would eventually rise up the ranks with him, part of a much broader “generational succession” that will need to take place alongside the prime ministerial succession. Manet is also head of the CPP’s youth wing and his “reserve cabinet” (as Hun Sen phrased it) is gaining momentum.