'Hello Thaksin, this is Hun Sen calling. I might need you back to be my adviser again. It's serious.''
One day Thaksin Shinawatra could get a phone call like this from his close friend in Phnom Penh. This offer, unlike any previous ones, could be real. That position of economic adviser to the Cambodian premier made after the 2006 coup in Thailand was simply to humiliate the coup-makers who ousted the former Thai prime minister.
Now it will be different. The July 28 Cambodian election put Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in the same boat as Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party.
Once seemingly invincible, the CPP shows signs of declining popularity for the first time since 1983. The party won 64 seats that year, jumped to 73 in 2003 and leaped to 90 five years later. Graphs show the upward trend for the party, but the latest election turns the arrow completely around.
The National Election Committee declared that the long-ruling CPP gathered 3.2 million votes, edging out its arch-rival, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), by 300,000 votes. Seat allocation will be announced by Sept 8 and it is expected that this time Hun Sen's party will have just 68 MPs in the 123-member National Assembly, a 22-seat drop. The CNRP championed by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, won the rest.
Hun Sen is now 61 and will hold on to power for another five years. By that time he will be 66 and will need two more election victories to fulfill his ambition to rule Cambodia until he is 74.
But the poll results from July 28 indicate his efforts to prolong his political grip on Cambodia have become weaker.
What he really needs from Thaksin is the know-how to survive when his party is barely managing to cling to power.
Pheu Thai is still in the driver's seat in Thailand's national parliament, but it has yet to win the race in the all-important Bangkok constituencies. That was underlined in the election for the Bangkok governor and a by-election in Don Muang district this year. Without the approval of voters in the capital, the party cannot sit comfortably, as history shows that rural people select a party to govern and those in the power centre in Bangkok kick it out. The situation leading up to the coup to oust Thaksin was mainly driven by this theory, although anti-Thaksin protesters in other parts of the country were a force to be reckoned with.
The Cambodian strongman, however, is unlikely to be ousted by guns and tanks. But he could be stung by the rules. The CPP's popularity among urban voters, especially in Phnom Penh, is dwindling and Hun Sen has to bank on his policies pleasing the rural poor to keep power.
The country's economy is growing, as is the number of middle-class voters who have never seen other politicians except Hun Sen running the country since the end of the civil war in 1991 _ except for a brief period in 1993 when the country had co-prime ministers.
Change will come _ probably later rather than sooner _ as urban voters may want to elect a new face to end the country's one-man show. What Hun Sen needs, therefore, is lessons learned from Thaksin on how to keep his party going and to stabilise his power base amid disgruntlement among urban elites.
But the problem for Hun Sen is that Thaksin might not be available this time.
The former prime minister now seems to be enjoying his new role as the self-appointed special envoy of Thailand on the South China Sea. He claims he went to Washington in June to talk to think-tanks and then to the Philippines, China and Vietnam over the past two months.
Thaksin is eager to help Thailand tackle this sensitive issue as it has been assigned to be coordinator of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with China on the troubled waters, which entirely or partly are claimed by various Asean members and other countries, including China. He said on his Facebook page that his informal tactics will bear fruit to end the quarrelling between the claimants and those ''superpowers'' which are trying to get involved.
That may not be easy in reality _ and Hun Sen knows it only too well.
His country hosted the meeting of Asean foreign ministers last year and stunned them by ending the forum with no joint declaration, simply because of the conflicts over the South China Sea.
Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Saritdet Marukatat
Position: Digital Media News Editor