PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Cambodia's succession won't be rushed. When speculation swirled almost two years ago that the prime minister's eldest son would take over in this summer's election, his father, Hun Sen, the premier for some 40 years, quashed it.
"I am still standing, so what's the point of my son being the prime minister," Hun Sen said late in 2021. "So, his possible [premiership] is not before 2028. It is more likely to take place between 2028 and even 2030. He must wait."
In the meantime, the 46-year-old son, Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, is marching into the political arena as a candidate for parliament on the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) ticket in July's national election. The CPP is widely expected to win in a landslide.
"I can say that we are impressed with [Hun Manet's] educational background and other qualities," Son Chhay, a longtime opposition figure now among the Candlelight Party's deputy presidents, told VOA Khmer in early February. "But we will have to wait and see how he seeks to resolve the country's pressing issues including corruption, judicial independence to name a few."
Hun Manet is among those emerging CPP leaders - mostly children of the old guard - who must convince the public that they have a modern vision for Cambodia, without making changes that undermine the patronage network that underpins the ruling party.
Lt. Gen. Hun Manet, center, of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the first son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, smiles before the start of the international half-marathon in front of Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 12, 2016.
"Until Hun Sen dies and passes from the scene permanently, he will have a dominant role in Cambodian politics. Even if he is not formally serving as prime minister anymore, he will still be working behind the scenes to ensure a stable balance of power within the CPP," Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen's Cambodia, told VOA Khmer from Australia.
"If the transition of power is carried out smoothly without opposition from within the CPP, I predict that it probably won't change a lot," Strangio said.
On April 20, Hun Manet became a four-star general, the rank enjoyed by top military leaders of his father's generation, men who began as young Khmer Rouge fighters under Pol Pot's genocidal rule in the 1970s.
Hun Manet's rise in the armed forces has come with a growing political portfolio.
He is a member of the ruling party's powerful permanent committee. And along with his youngest brother, Hun Many, he has overseen efforts to expand the CPP's support among Cambodian youth, a driving force behind the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's success in 2013.
FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen salutes, along with his son Lt. Gen. Hun Manet during an inspection of troops at a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 24, 2019.
"The change of guard, after more than 40 years, is a monumental event," said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at the Center for East and Southeast Asian Studies, at Lund University in Sweden. "With the coming to power of a new generation of Ph.D. holders, we can expect the incoming government to relate in new ways to society compared to their parents' generation, and for power to speak in new ways."
However, the backdrop of this year's election underscores the challenge facing the new generation.
In early March, opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to 25 years under house arrest.
Later that month, opposition activists were arrested for social media posts criticizing the prime minister. And in February, the independent news agency Voice of Democracy had its license revoked and access to its English and Khmer-language websites was blocked inside the country.
Strangio agreed the ascension of younger CPP leaders represents "an important generational change" but maintaining the CPP patronage system will "foreclose any major degree of reform."
He continued, "I do think that they will continue to have to work within the logic of the system, which in many ways has been designed to resist political reform."
Over the past two years, Hun Manet has become a ubiquitous presence, speaking at inaugurations for hospitals, schools, Buddhist temples, factories and even hotels - a role fulfilled by his father for decades.
As part of his official duties, ostensibly as commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, he also met and spoke with 29 senior defense officials and at least 10 world leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Hun Manet's social media platforms look like his father's, with a news feed filled with video clips and commentary boasting of the CPP's legacy of peace and economic development. His speeches often sound like his father's, beginning with a formal speech, then pivoting into political commentary or responding to media reports that angered him.
While it is clear that Hun Manet is primed to take over, it is less clear what will happen when he does, said Ear Sophal, a senior associate dean and an associate professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.
"It's clear the father wants the son to take over. ... However, he still has to maintain power," added Ear Sophal, a Cambodian American political scientist.
Born in 1977 during the Khmer Rouge's reign, and raised amid the 1980s civil war, Hun Manet's generation knows the struggles of wartime and he knows a life of extreme privilege as well.
At the age of 18, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1998. He earned master's and Ph.D. degrees in economics from New York University in 2002 and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom in 2008.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, stands with his son Hun Manet after graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, May 29, 1998.
"His military background, amplified by his economic background, makes him the ideal candidate for the country's future leader," said Chhay Sophal, a media professor and author of The Prime Minister's Eldest Son: Journey Towards Turn, released in August 2022.
Hun Manet's anticipated premiership would require protecting his father's legacy even while trying to take the country in a new direction, said Ou Virak, founder of Future Forum, a research center in Phnom Penh.
"I think he will try to do both. But will the system allow him to do both? And the answer is no. I think he is going to find it ... very difficult to maneuver," said Ou Virak.
Yet Hun Manet has expressed his intention to make changes. Speaking recently of changes within the military, he said, "When there is a reform, there will be change. Some will be unhappy by that, while some are happy."
Ou Virak warned that factions within the CPP are "trying to get a piece of the cake that is not enough to go around, and that's going to create a lot of tensions as well." He said those dynamics will require Hun Manet to "make a lot of deals."
"And the question is actually what would be the right level of compromises to be made? That doesn't just take some calculation. That takes art and creativity and leadership, combination of all. You have to be above and beyond in all three, to be able to pull it off," said Ou Virak.
Some within the CPP say Hun Manet has already shown he can strike the right balance. Ly Chantola, a French-educated lawyer who is president of the Bar Association of Cambodia, told VOA Khmer in an interview at his office in February, "He is open to new ideas and curious to learn from others, taking other recommendations as he sees fit, though keeping his decisions within the CPP visions and core values."
Hun Manet's succession may be a fait accompli, but his democratic legitimacy will depend on how the CPP handles the upcoming elections, said Ou Virak.
"I think the new Cabinet, including Hun Manet himself, should be put to the people to vote in a more credible manner, so they can obtain the mandate of the people. That would be my advice," he said.