Cambodian voters are going to the polls Sunday in a Parliamentary election that could set the stage for the first change in leadership since Hun Sen became prime minister nearly four decades ago.
Mr. Hun Sen, 70, has announced that at some point after the election he will hand over the position to his oldest son, General Hun Manet, 45. But he has made it clear that he will stay on as a power behind the throne.
“Even if I am no longer a prime minister, I will still control politics as the head of the ruling party,” he said in June.
Mr. Hun Sen underscored the dynastic nature of this transition, saying at a party meeting last year, “I will become father of the prime minister after 2023 and grandfather of the prime minister in the 2030s.”
This dynastic succession within a Parliamentary system, at the sole discretion of Mr. Hun Sen, demonstrates the grip he has on power after eliminating virtually all opposition — through violence, coup, imprisonment, forced exile and manipulation of the courts. Hun Sen’s continuing grip on his country comes as the region is tilting increasingly toward authoritarianism.
The authoritarianism in Cambodia is the end result, three decades later, of a two-billion-dollar intervention by the United Nations intended to foster democracy and the rule of law in a nation still torn by mass killings and civil war.
“The history of the international community’s ill-fated attempt to implant democracy in Cambodia should be required reading for anyone planning future United Nations peacekeeping operations,” Craig Etcheson, a former visiting scientist at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, said in an email.
The sole credible opposition party, the Candlelight party, was disqualified in May by the National Election Commission, which answers to Mr. Hun Sen, making the victory of his party all but inevitable.
“This repeat of the 2018 election, which had no opposition, should make it clear to the world that Hun Sen has definitively turned his back on democracy,” Mu Sochua, an opposition leader who fled Cambodia to avoid arrest, said in an email.
To ensure that the election, and the potential succession, went according to plan, Mr. Hun Sen has attempted to stamp out all potential opposition.
In February he forced the closure the Voice of Democracy, one of the country’s last independent news outlets. Scores of opposition politicians have been jailed in the last few years or have fled into exile. The most prominent opposition figure remaining in Cambodia, Kem Sokha, was sentenced to 17 years of house arrest in March.
Sophal Ear, a political scientist at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, compared Mr. Hun Sen’s electoral manipulations with Cambodia’s record in hosting the Southeast Asian Games earlier this year.
By changing rules and adding obscure Cambodian sports like ouk chaktrang, or Cambodian chess, and bokator, a Cambodian martial art, the country was able to raise its medal total to 282, an increase of 219 medals from its total of 63 medals in the previous games.
A former middle-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre, Mr. Hun Sen has practiced hardball politics since being installed as prime minister in 1985 during a Vietnamese-backed government.
Six years earlier, a Vietnamese invasion had ended the murderous four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, during which 1.7 million people died from execution, starvation and overwork.
The Khmer Rouge fled into the jungles, touching off a long-running civil war.
The United Nations intervened in 1992 after a peace agreement and conducted an election in which Mr. Hun continued to hold power as co-premier with his rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. A tough infighter, he soon became the dominant partner in that position and then the sole prime minister after ousting Prince Ranarridh in a coup in 1997.
In campaign speeches he and his surrogates emphasize his successes, including dramatic economic growth, many years of stability and the final demise of the Khmer Rouge.
“Hun Sen develops the country well, the country has peace and no war,” said Mai Kompheak, 25, who drives a three-wheel taxi in Phnom Penh. “I don’t want to see Cambodia like Ukraine.”
Among his various predictions of the length of his tenure, Mr. Hun Sen said in March 2021 that he would continue in the post “until I want to stop.” He has been laying the ground for a dynastic transition for at least a decade, sidelining potential challengers and publicly promoting his son, General Manet, for the job.
“For all his political successes over the past four decades, Hun Sen now faces a curious challenge: how to step back from a system in which he has made himself indispensable,” Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” wrote in an email.
It will be a risky time as he loosens his grip on power, opening the way for possible infighting and internal upheavals.
Beyond the office of prime minister, the election will mark a generational transition in the coming years from the old guard of top officials, many of whom will be succeeded by their sons.
“There is every indication that Manet, even more than Hun Sen, will be imprisoned by the system that his father created, and hostage to its dynamics of loyalty and obligation,” Mr. Strangio added. “It is unlikely that Manet possesses the ruthless instinct that has helped his father to remain at the pinnacle of Cambodian politics for so long.”
Mr. Hun Sen publicly announced his endorsement of his son in December 2021. He later added a few words of faint praise, saying, “Even if he cannot be like his father, at least his capacity should match that of his father by 80 or 90 percent.”
He had been grooming his son for many years, giving him a Western education that includes a bachelor’s degree from West Point, a master’s from New York University and a doctorate in economics from the University of Bristol in Britain.
He has risen quickly through the ranks of Cambodia’s military and is now a four-star general, chief of the army and deputy commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
At the same time, he is in the inner circle of his father’s political party and the head of the party’s youth wing, giving him a platform to connect with young voters, an increasingly influential portion of the electorate.
At a village gathering in May, Mr. Hun Sen also gave his son divine credentials, saying his birth was blessed by a powerful local spirit that revealed itself as a bright light that flew over Mr. Hun Sen’s house at the moment he was born.
“Manet may be the child of Nhek Ta Anchanh Koh Thmar,” he said, naming the powerful spirit.
Sun Narin contributed reporting from Cambodia.