Cambodia's Hun Sen Might Face Electoral Trouble

The Chinese call it the "mandate of heaven," the right - supposedly bestowed from above - that permits ruling emperors or communist party bigwigs to rule until, in the course of time, they fall or are pushed aside.

In Cambodia, that "right" for the past 28 years has belonged to Hun Sen, an autocrat who glories in his unofficial title of "strongman." He was placed in power by the Vietnamese army after it invaded Cambodia in 1979 to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, under whose rule 1.7 million people died from a variety of reasons, not least plain murder.

Inevitably, as in all dictatorships, a leader will begin to wobble and, in a drawn-out process, eventually fall. That hasn't happened to Hun Sen, who at 61 still believes he has many years at the helm as Southeast Asia's longest serving elected leader. He has said, not necessarily as a joke, that he will be in power until age 90.

But observers here say there are intimations of vulnerability that were not perceived before, not least the phalanxes of hundreds of free-spirited young people, many of them women, on motorcycles, waving flags with a rising sun logo, around Phnom Penh, and who are loyal to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a coalition of two parties which came together in July last year.

Five years ago such girls would have been spending their evenings over quiet dinners with extended families. Now they're on the streets at all times with a burning political message of change.

They pass other groups of regimented and undemonstrative young people in white T-shirts, who belong to the Hun Sen's ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP), and who are nonetheless not allowed to talk to reporters - they have little to say anyway - and look like rent-a-crowds on a US$5 a day retainer, or at least something from the former East Germany.

As they pass each other in the snarled traffic, they - so far good-naturedly - hold up seven fingers, signaling the CNRP's official number in the eight political parties taking part in the election, meaning they have to take both hands off their motorbike handlebars. The CPP supporters wave four fingers for their random number in the election line-up.

I don't remember seeing such scenes in the four previous elections that followed the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. Politics have come to the street, and people are participating like seldom in recent memory.

As Cambodians prepare to go to the polls on July 28, there is a certain sense of nervousness within the upper levels of the ruling CPP, the former communist party, foreign diplomats say. Some have even called this mood "the jitters."

"It's stunning and exciting and difficult to believe," said one foreign member of a human rights group here. "But there seems to be a surge of support for the opposition."

Two opposition parties have joined together in order at least to dent the rule of the arrogant CPP. One is the Human Rights Party headed by Kem Sokha, who has turned out to be a born orator, every bit as good as Hun Sen at talking to Cambodians at the village level.

The main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy of the eponymous "Sam Rainsy Party," has also joined the CNRP. He has been pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni of alleged crimes that Rainsy insists were politically motivated by the ruling party, and is scheduled to return home from self-imposed exile on Friday to take part in parliamentary elections that will challenge Hun Sen's tight grip on power.

With so much at stake, security will be paramount - Hun Sen himself, after all, has a unit of 3,000 or so bodyguards.

The newish coalition combines the Sam Rainsy Party (26 seats in Parliament) with the Human Right Party (HRP) under Kem Sokha. It won just three seats at the last election.

It remains to be seen how Sokha and Rainsy get on together in the longer term, given Sokha's home-grown political success and Rainsy's long absence from the country. Will there be a future competition for leadership?

Hun Sen was initially opposed to the pardon, despite some support from within CPP ranks. He resisted overtures from US President Barack Obama to have the charges against Rainsy dropped during a visit last November, maintaining that the issue was a matter for the courts. The courts are, of course, also controlled by Hun Sen.

The CPP currently holds 90 seats in the 123-seat national assembly and is widely expected to be returned to power. But it will most likely be with a reduced majority, which Hun Sen would abhor.

"Even the loss of one seat would be viewed by him as a humiliating defeat, so he had better be prepared for disappointment," said one foreign diplomat.

The mandate of heaven can be a fickle thing.

The CPP will not lose the election, envoys say. This is because of economic growth, particularly in the impoverished countryside. There, unsophisticated political violence, killing of human rights activists and institutional corruption are all in evidence, but people seem unable to distinguish who is grabbing their land and who is the ruling party they say they want to vote for.

Yet ordinary Cambodians are beginning to ask for a bigger share of development and greater voice in running the country. "The opposition has fresh political ideas," noted one foreign expert. "And people's expectations are growing."

The CNRP has a policy that appeals to the poor. It includes a minimum monthly wage of 600,000 Cambodian riels (US$150) and an old age pension of US $10 a month, pathetic by standards elsewhere, but a boon for older people in rural areas.

For its part, the CPP might control every level of power in Cambodia, and be behind land-grabbing, but it is showing some signs of internal disagreement, diplomats say. Some CPP high-ups were said to be not amused when Hun Sen warned recently, as he has in the past, that there might be a civil war if the CPP was not returned to power. This was, to say the least, unhelpful.

Other CPP leaders are said to be tired of Hun Sen's boastful posturing and ranting, and the way President Barack Obama seemed to be slighted when he visited the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) last November when Cambodia was the host and chair .

But there is at least one positive development this time around. There has been seemingly very little violence in this election whereas in the past they were marked by political assassinations. Bit by bit, civilized life is being re-established, at least for now.

(James Pringle previously covered the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam)