Sophal Ear at Occidental College in California compares Cambodian politics to a game of cat-and-mouse “where only the mouse changes”.
But the cat still has to run for re-election, and the next one, which Mr Hun Sen and Mr Sam Rainsy both say they will contest, already looms. Mr Hun Sen is 62 years old, and has said that he intends to rule until he is 74. Yet Cambodia’s young electorate is tired of decades of corruption and thuggish rule. Even with all the resources at its disposal, the CPP may not win the next election outright and deals may need to be cut. Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who heads Funcinpec, also says he plans to run but, given his party’s abysmal showing in 2013, he offers the prime minister little. Mr Kem Sokha’s frequent and unflinching criticisms of the prime minister render him an unlikely partner. That leaves Mr Sam Rainsy as the most appealing choice.
Politics in Cambodia
The faithful couple
An unlikely rapprochement after a long stand-off
AFTER Hun Sen bet $5,000 on Manny Pacquiao defeating Floyd Mayweather in boxing’s “fight of the century”, the Cambodian prime minister refused to pay up, arguing that the Philippine hero did not deserve to lose to Mr Mayweather on points. So far, so usual for Cambodia’s strongman: boxing is just like an election, really, only less violent. The opposition has long claimed that Mr Hun Sen’s ruling party stole the last election, and there has been blood on the streets since.
So what to make of the unusual: the recent spectacle of Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader, consorting with Mr Hun Sen, his nemesis who has ruled Cambodia for 30 years and who drove Mr Sam Rainsy into exile for the better part of a decade?
Mr Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had been in a stand-off with Mr Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) since the election in 2013. A parliamentary boycott and a series of street protests followed, as well as a violent government crackdown on dissidents. An uneasy truce was negotiated last July. Yet last month, in plain view near the temples of Angkor Wat, here were Mr Sam Rainsy and Mr Hun Sen celebrating the Cambodian new year together along with their wives, chatting amicably to locals.
So far as Mr Sam Rainsy is concerned, there is now sweetness and light. “I used to hate Hun Sen,” he says. “But then it came to my mind that I should not hate anyone as a human. I should only hate and combat any bad crimes that a person has committed.” Mr Hun Sen has had an epiphany too: he and Mr Sam Rainsy “must stay together because, at the very least, we have the same Cambodian blood.”