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Prime Minister Hun Sen and the art of power politics

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends the celebration marking the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

Politics is the art of the impossible. Prime Minister Hun Sen is the master of power politics otherwise he could not have stayed in power for more than three decades. He knows how to defeat his opponents either through harsh measures such as “divide and conquer” or through dialogue and negotiation such as a win-win policy. As a chess player, he knows when to attack, when to retreat, and when to deceive his enemies.

For him, regime survival and legacy are the top priorities.

His power politics style has been consistent that he does care about his legacy and the future of the country. Peaceful and smooth power transition has occupied his thinking for years. He is concerned that without him, Cambodia will fall into chaos and instability. One of the strategies that he is going to adopt is to consolidate his power within the party and the state systems in order to ensure that peace and development will prevail in the Kingdom.

Another strategy that he been using is winning a victory without going to war, namely through the art of negotiation. He is willing to gamble and take risks – some political and even compromises to security – to achieve his ambitions. His win-win policy in the late 1990s is truly a testament to his leadership in promoting national reconciliation and unity. He understands that without national unity, Cambodia cannot develop, stay independent, and catch up with other countries in the region. His dream is to see the revival of the great Khmer civilization.

Cambodia has experienced more than two decades of peace and stability since it gained total peace in 1998. After the collapse of the Khmer empire in 15th century, this is the longest duration of peace that Cambodians have enjoyed. In terms of modern state building, Cambodia is a young state. That is the reason why Cambodia needs a bold and visionary political leadership to build state institutions.

In his latest attempt, Mr Hun Sen has taken a bold and surprising step in convening all political parties to form a consultative council. Early this week, the so-called “Supreme Consultative Council” was created to sustain and nurture a multi-party political system and to strengthen national reconciliation and unity for socio-economic development.

The main functions of the council are to promote dialogues among all political parties on draft laws, provide inputs to government policy, and monitor the performance of state institutions. The council will be formed under a Royal Decree and two representatives from each political party will be become members of the council after approval from His Majesty the King following the request made by the prime minister. The council members will be also appointed as advisors to the government, with ranks of senior minister and minister.

The council will be holding its consultation meeting once a month under the rotating chairmanship based on the alphabetical order of the Khmer names of council members. The consultation will take place every six months with the presence of the prime minister.

The questions are how substantial, influential, and independent the council would be. Under the existing state governance, there are many underperforming agencies and certain ministries with poor track records. Because of this, there have been strong suggestions that the upcoming new government puts more efforts in reforming existing institutions rather than creating more mechanisms and bodies.

Perhaps it will be a test or challenge for the small political parties to now deliver what they promised during the election campaign, which is to push for reforms in the country’s governance system. If these small parties cannot deliver what they have promised to their voters, they will be out from politics in the forthcoming commune and general elections.

It is commendable that now other political parties have been given a chance to prove themselves. Whether they remain relevant depends on their performance. Being critical is not enough. They must provide innovative and practical solutions to many issues and problems that Cambodia is facing. It will be unfortunate if they allow themselves to be just used as a rubber stamp, sidestepping the interests of the people and allowing material greed and political power to get the better of them.

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