PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The appointments of Say Chhum, long-term secretary general of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Sar Kheng, long-serving Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior as Samdechs last week, marks the start of unprecedented changes in the party’s hierarchy.
Also setting the stage for unprecedented times within the party were Friday’s grand funeral of the late long-term party president, Chea Sim, then Saturday’s 38th Congress of the CPP, which saw the two new Samdechs elected as co-vice presidents of the ruling party.
The demise of Chea Sim propelled Say Chhum, a generally quiet and far-from-the-limelight politician, to the presidency of the Senate. This is a key position given that, in the absence of the King, the Senate president automatically assumes the role of acting head of state.
Sar Kheng, on the other hand, held no official CPP position in the party leadership hierarchy until two days ago.
The death of Chea Sim changed all that, with Say Chhum assuming a more powerful position and assuming the post of co-vice president, with Sar Kheng.
CPP: Now the Samdechs Are Four
It is also the first time in the history of the CPP that there are four individuals with the honorific title “Samdech.” For years, the party Samdech triumvirate was: Chea Sim, Hun Sen and the honorary party president, Heng Samrin. The latter also was out of the limelight in the early 90s, in the first mandate, and then propelled to prominence in the second mandate as vice president of the National Assembly, and then president when Prince Norodom Ranariddh left the post. He has held the post of National Assembly President ever since.
Khmer Times learned that with both Say Chhum and Sar Kheng elected Saturday as co-vice presidents, the news is the emergence of Say Chhum from the party structure shadows and into the limelight.
“The very election of Say Chhum, and Sar Kheng as co vice presidents illustrated power accommodation within the CPP in order to maintain unity and strengthen collective leadership within the party,” said Chheang Vannarith, academician and visiting lecturer at Leeds University.
“However, it may also make it more difficult to reach consensus on certain contentious issues, as now Sar Kheng will be in a position of power within the party,” he continued. “It also gives the signal that Say Chhum may indeed have some aspirations of high political ambition, but I don’t think he will challenge Mr. Hun Sen.”
Mr. Vannarith added that it is automatic that Mr. Hun Sen will become Number One in the list of the Politburo, the top decision-making body within the party. CPP officials tell Khmer Times that the Politburo seat once occupied by the late Chea Sim in the Politburo will not be filled soon.
Hun Sen To Keep CPP Unified
“The replacement in the Politburo will throw light to the alignment of the various members and what their political aspirations, within the CPP would be,” said Mr. Vannarith.
He stressed that power sharing and power accommodation will prevail. He said: “Factional politics will be constrained as long as Prime Minister Hun Sen holds on to power.”
This point was shared by a former diplomat based in Cambodia during the first mandate.
“While Sar Kheng, now Samdech, has often stressed that he is not interested in the prime minister’s post since 1993, it is quite undeniable that he has often been tasked by the prime minister to take on unsavory responsibilities such as cracking down on the 1998 election aftermath and also leading the negotiation with the CNRP after the 2013 general election,” said the diplomat who speaks to Khmer Times on condition of anonymity.
“Sar Kheng had comfort by being a member of Samdech Chea Sim’s family, but his position as Interior Minister also meant that he had the power to control the party grassroots mechanism and administration as they all came under the purview and authority of the Minister of Interior,” he added.
With the death of Chea Sim, this comfort zone may no longer be possible. There is likely to be some realignment of former allies with new ones, or some abandoning old ties all together.
“He has not been an ardent fan of reform and change to the party structure and government as a whole, and often, there were unpublicized wrangles on laws which were related to the Interior Ministry as they were ultra-secretive in drafting then and shielding the information from others until the last minute,” the diplomat said, pointing out the NGO law as one example.
Hun Sen To Come out Stronger
He agreed with Mr. Vannarith’s assessment that the death of Chea Sim has become a very significant turning point in CPP’s history.
Mr. Hun Sen will consolidate his power within the executive and the party and he will become more decisive in decision making process and the speed of reform will also be faster, both the diplomat and Mr. Vannarith predicted.
Sok Ey San, the ruling party’s spokesman, told Khmer Times that the CPP congress members voted overwhelmingly to support the top three top leaders of the party.
“The one presidential candidate and two other co-vice presidential candidates were unanimously voted with a margin of 506 out of 508 voters, thus, confirming that Samdech Hun Sen has assumed the party presidency and the other two Samdech’s Say Chhum and Sar Kheng have assumed the post of co-vice presidents of the party,” he said.
He said that all CPP congress members accepted to cast their votes based on one ballot comprising the three candidates.
“Before the CPP congress launched the vote, the party had a separate meeting comprising the 34 other permanent committee members to pre-determine the candidates,” the spokesman said. “The result of all permanent committee members of the party was unanimous. And the subsequent vote reflected this consensus.”
Political analyst Kem Ley, founding member of the Khmer for Khmer network, said: “In my view, the CPP congress voted to elect two vice presidents of the party in order to avoid disintegration, or creation of fragile internal conflicts within the party after last Saturday’s election.”
He added: “But the election procedure was not democratic, because those candidates did not have the opportunity to show their agenda to party members in order to win their support.”
Another analyst, Sok Touch, said that it is not strange that the ruling CPP has two vice presidents without ranks.Prime Minister Hun Sen has now became the top leader as president and he is an original member of the party.
“He now has key role of setting up the main policies and strategies for the party,” he said. “It is also good thing for the CPP. Now, when the president of the party is absent, he can decide to appoint either one of the two vice presidents as acting president to run its political activities, although this may never happen.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen (L), Defense Minister Tea Banh (C) and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An (R) attend Friday’s funeral for former ruling party head Chea Sim. Photo: AFP