2015 marks 30 years in power for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who became prime minister in January 1985 at only 33 years old. He has consolidated his power base through charismatic leadership, paternalism, coercion and a system of patronage.
There are mixed views on Hun Sen’s leadership. It is essential to understand the national context to conduct a well-balanced assessment of his achievements and shortcomings. Cambodia is a fragile country after nearly three decades of war and conflict. Social and political distrust, a potential source of political instability, remain deeply embedded in Cambodian political culture and society.
For Hun Sen, peace and security and socio-economic development occupy center stage in Cambodia’s domestic politics, with democracy and human rights coming in second.
The premier is one of the main architects of peace-building in Cambodia. His political career started with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation which, with the support of Vietnam, toppled the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979.
At the end of the 1980s, as similar economic reforms were being pursued in Vietnam and Laos, Hun Sen chose to follow the free-market economic model. But Cambodia took a different political reform path from that of Laos and Vietnam after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. Cambodia adopted a liberal, multi-party political system, incorporating the principles of democracy and human rights in its 1993 constitution.
Hun Sen has steered Cambodia towards peace and development, helping overcome the most difficult period in the country’s history, which included both the civil war and subsequent factional power struggles. In the late 1990s, he managed to dissolve the remaining Khmer Rouge forces and reintegrate them into the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces, marking the end of the civil war.
In the last two decades, Cambodia has enjoyed an average of 7.7 percent GDP growth. Cambodia is classified as a ‘high growth country’ by the World Bank. The poverty rate fell from 47.8 percent in 2007 to 18.9 per cent in 2012. But the development gap between urban and rural areas remains wide. In 2011, 91 percent of poor households were living in rural areas. Cambodia’s poor households are vulnerable to an array of shocks including natural disasters and water, food and energy security crises.
Hun Sen’s governance strategy revolves around three factors: political stability, development and promoting cultural identity. His ambition is to transform Cambodia into a middle-income country by 2030, and a high-income country by 2050.
Still, the prime minister’s leadership and legitimacy were critically challenged in the July 2013 general election when his Cambodian People Party (CPP) suffered a remarkable drop in popular support, losing 22 seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).