Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed Monday to stay in power for more than a decade until he’s 74, while his ruling party prepares to extend its grip on power by putting 14 of its progeny up for contest in this year’s national polls.
According to the official candidate list released by the National Election Committee over the weekend, a total of 14 children of senior Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members are registered to run in the July 28 election.
The release of the list puts an end to speculation about who among the offspring of high-ranking party members will stand in the election.
Hun Sen’s youngest son Hun Many, 31, and his son-in-law Dy Vichea, 32, are among the 14 and are running to become members of parliament in Kampong Speu and Svay Rieng provinces, respectively.
Hun Sen himself, who has headed the country since 1985, is Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader by far and has retained power amid accusations that his regime suppresses political freedoms and mistreats rights campaigners.
In a speech broadcast on national television on Monday, the 60-year-old said he plans to continue being in politics until he is 74.
Refuting criticism that he has been in power too long already, Hun Sen said he would follow in the footsteps of Chinese and Vietnamese leaders who led their countries through their 70’s.
"Other developed countries change their leaders [more often], but as for me, I will follow the lead of China and Vietnam,” he said in the speech at a road groundbreaking ceremony in Kompong Speu province.
“I will wait until age 74 to leave politics just like they do in China,” he said.
Hun Sen said in 2007 that he will continue to stand as a candidate in elections until he is 90, and in 2009 indicated he would be out of politics by 2023.
In Monday’s speech, he added that he has been involved in politics his whole life, holding high-ranking positions in his twenties and thirties, and urged voters to give him another term.
“I have been in power since a young age and even now I am not old,” he said.
“If you want me to stay, you should vote for me; if you don't vote for me I won't stay.”
Hun Sen predicted last month that his party would win at least a two-thirds majority in the upcoming poll, in which the CPP faces the opposition coalition National Rescue Party.
But the main opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, is barred from standing in the election because of a string of convictions against him and has lived in self-imposed exile in France since 2009.
Opposition members have demanded electoral reforms, including permission for Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia to participate in the polls, a revamp of the National Election Committee to make it more transparent, and a review of irregularities in voter registration lists.
National Rescue Party Deputy President Kem Sokha said it is undemocratic of Hun Sen to follow the example of communist China and Vietnam to tighten his grip on power.
Furthermore, both countries do not allow their leaders terms longer than 10 years, he said.
“In China and Vietnam, even though they have one-party rule, they do change the president or prime minister, which is better for their people," he told RFA's Khmer Service.
Limiting diversity in Cambodia’s leadership could stifle the country’s development, he said.
CPP offspring candidates
The CPP has dominated the country’s government for the past three decades, and its nomination of offspring of party members in this year’s polls has sparked concern about the perpetuation of the country’s political elite.
Alongside Hun Many and Dy Vichea, the children of CPP members contesting seats in the election include Deputy Prime Minister Sok An’s son Sok Sokan, Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s son Sar Sokha, Senate deputy president Say Chhum’s son Say Sam El and Supreme Court president Dith Monty’s son Dith Tina.
Puthea Hang, director of the election watchdog group the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), said the selection of senior children of CPP took up spots from others qualified to run in the election and is part of a political culture that favors the elite.
"In Cambodian culture, families want to promote their children and loved ones. This has a negative effect on other youths who are qualified to be involved in politics," Puthea Hang said.
If Hun Sen does stay in power until 74, he could be at the helm until 2026 or 2028, depending on how his age is counted.
The idiosyncratic leader turns 61 in August, but is already 62 on his official paperwork, which he continues to use even though he says a typing error recorded his date of birth a year early and in April.
Reported by Tep Soravy and Vann Vicha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.