PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - His party is reeling from its worst-ever election result. His political opponents have grown bold and vocal. His people are protesting on the streets. So why is Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen smiling?
The long-ruling autocrat emerged beaming from lengthy closed-door meetings this week with his old political foe, Sam Rainsy, who says Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) cheated its way to a narrow victory in a July 28 general election.
He has reason to be cheerful. Although lawmakers from Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) are threatening to boycott the new session of parliament, due to begin on Monday, until an independent inquiry is held into electoral fraud, the recent political violence has left Hun Sen mostly unscathed.
Thousands of CNRP supporters dispersed on Tuesday after a three-day rally in a park in the capital, Phnom Penh, where one man was killed and several injured when police opened fire on stone-throwing protesters on Sunday night.
Hun Sen’s composure after this week’s meetings suggests his renewed confidence in breaking the political deadlock and extending his nearly three decades of rule by another five years, say analysts.
His smiling photo-ops, however, could also hint at changes ahead for Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who has stamped his authority on every walk of life in Cambodia.
After millions of Cambodian voters deserted the CPP in an election widely regarded as tainted, Hun Sen appears intent on softening his remote and fearsome image.
From a humble farming background, Hun Sen was just 33 when he took power in 1985, and is now in the unenviable company of enduring dictators such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The CPP’s shock election result could force him to change both his party and leadership style.
His party officially won the election with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, a greatly reduced majority that signalled widespread disenchantment with Hun Sen’s iron-fisted rule despite rapid economic growth of more than 7 percent a year.
“Hun Sen and his party must change drastically and fast to be able to remain a relevant political force,” said Lao Mong Hay, a prominent Cambodian academic. “They need to work as servants of the people, not their masters.”
China quickly offered its congratulations to Hun Sen on his election “victory”, but the United States and European Union have withheld theirs. Strong economic and political ties with Beijing have allowed Hun Sen to largely ignore criticism from the West and enjoy waves of Chinese investment.
In return, Cambodia has emerged as an important Southeast Asian ally for China, defying its neighbours and backing China in tense diplomatic talks over the South China Sea where overlapping sovereignty claims have led to standoffs with Vietnam and the Philippines.
Hun Sen claims credit for leading Cambodia from the chaos and poverty following the 1975-1979 “Killing Fields” regime of the Khmer Rouge in which an estimated 1.7 million people - about one third of the population - died. Now 61, Hun Sen has vowed to rule Cambodia into his seventies.
But Cambodia’s youthful population - about 70 percent of its 14 million people are under 30 - is focused on more immediate concerns, including land grabbing, labour disputes, joblessness and rampant corruption.
Hun Sen’s cordial talks with the opposition come as a surprise considering his past ruthlessness with political opponents and his history of antagonism with Sam Rainsy.
A former minister of finance, Sam Rainsy has twice fled into exile to evade criminal charges that U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said were politically motivated.
In 2010, he was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in jail for destroying property and spreading disinformation in relation to a new border agreed by Cambodia and Vietnam. He returned to Phnom Penh in July after a royal pardon to lead the CNRP, formed after two parties merged last year.
Sam Rainsy says the CNRP was robbed of 2.3 million votes that would have handed it victory in July. But Hun Sen rejects his demand for an independent inquiry into election fraud.
“If Hun Sen agreed to an outside investigation at this stage that would be tantamount to conceding the elections were rigged,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, a Cambodia expert at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia.
On Tuesday, CNRP supporters at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park waved placards reading “Where is my vote?” and chanted “Change! Change!”
With hopes of an inquiry fading, Sam Rainsy must now convince them to get behind a longer-term campaign to fix the electoral system. “(The CNRP) will have to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are the opposition party for the next five years,” said Thayer.
Assuming the CNRP takes its place in the 123-seat National Assembly, or lower house, the party’s effectiveness there depends on what concessions its leaders can wring from Hun Sen this week.
The CNRP wants reforms to the National Election Committee, the body stuffed with former CPP officials, as well as its own television station to break Hun Sen’s stranglehold on the country’s media, which has largely avoided covering the protests.
The CNRP is also angling for the presidency or deputy presidency of the National Assembly, as well as positions on parliamentary committees long dominated by Hun Sen loyalists, say analysts.
“Without these concessions, the CNRP will not be able to achieve very much,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Hun Sen must also reform his own aging and corruption-riddled party. “Internally, the CPP is one big mess - from nepotism and family ties through marriage, to economic deals that favour close allies,” Ou Virak said.
A CPP spokesman could not be reached for comment.
But while Hun Sen might add some new faces to his cabinet, he will not risk destabilising the party by removing its most powerful figures, said Ou Virak.
“The party will remain out of touch with the young and ambitious Cambodian population as a result,” he said.
That he is talking to the opposition at all suggests Hun Sen is changing too, said social analyst Kem Ley.
“He has been quiet, which means he is listening more now,” he said. “And he is smiling - that’s already a positive sign.”
Even so, autocrats aren’t exactly famous for makeovers. “Power shouldn’t be centred on one man,” said Kem Ley. “He must have faith in other people. In his system, he doesn’t trust anyone except for himself.”
Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel