With his reign approaching its fourth decade, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen feels the need to stage a summersault to broaden his leadership legitimacy and increase his longevity. His request for a royal pardon for Sam Rainsy was highly calculated as he managed to kill three birds with one stone.
Second, Hun Sen is building a bridge with the opposition, sensing a possibility of forming a coalition. With Sam Rainsy's return, the CNRP is stronger and can win more seats - even though it puts a damper on Kem Sokha, the vice chair, who rattled Hun Sen during his chief's self-imposed exile. If the CNRP can win 30-38 seats, up from 29 seats in 2008 in the 123-seat assembly. Hun Sen could face the Najib syndrome as in Malaysia - winning the majority but with lesser seats. It would further dent the strongman's credibility, painstakingly nurtured since 1985.
In the worst-case scenario, a marriage of convenience between the ruling Cambodian People's Party and the CNRP could occur. From 1993-1997 Cambodia had two prime ministers, when the CPP joined with the FUNCINPEC party, led by Prince Norodom Ranaridh, before he was deposed by Hun Sen.
Third, the West, which was critical of his style of governance, has been somewhat neutralised. Throughout the 1990s a West-led consortium of financial packages has helped Cambodia to build basic infrastructure and social services. But from 2000 onward, the pattern of assistance has shifted to China, which has now become the principal aid donor.
All told, Asia's longest-serving leader is a real Machiavellian, who loves to fight against all challenges and oddities - which are sometimes the result of self-generated contradictions. He is adept at adjusting to political strategies, keenly following and learning from political developments in Asean. He absorbs the best practices - not necessarily democratic ones - both in economic and political matters, to boost Cambodia's competitiveness.
Hun Sen appreciates Myanmar's positive outcomes of calculated and phased reforms including the friendship of President Thein Sein and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Together, they have promoted Myanmar's positive image and drawn world-wide sympathy attracting foreign assistance and investment.
With Hun Sen's grand vision of Cambodia as a well-off country fully integrated with the ASEAN economic community, he cannot afford any "Arab spring" type disturbances. His political brinkmanship has taught him to preempt any possible social unrest and further political polarisation through engaging with the opposition, including proactive civil society groups - concentrating on corruption, poverty, impunity and land grabbing.
The royal pardon has been a safety valve to prevent political pressure from boiling over since 2010 when Sam Rainsy was sentenced to an 11-year prison term and left the country. The unexpectedly large crowd greeting his return last week reaffirmed the Cambodian desire to see a more open and democratic country with an active opposition's participation.
In the final analysis, Hun Sen's Cambodia dares not jeopardise its current political stability and continued economic growth and investment.
Any political instability will damage the booming tourism industry. The "Kingdom of Wonder" received 3.5 million tourists last year, earning US$2.2 billion (Bt68.25 billion) or 12 per cent of the country's GDP - translating into half a million jobs. Cambodia is a strong supporter of one common ASEAN visa - similar to the European Union's Schengen visa. Thailand and Cambodia have recently pooled their visas, with Laos and Myanmar being vetted to join in the future.
1n 1993, as a young democracy achieving a nearly 89.6 per cent turnout in UN-brokered elections, nobody ever expected Cambodia would one day become a little tiger and enjoy an average of 10 per cent economic growth, as it did for a decade up until the 2008 financial crisis.
An equally unexpected trend has been the nature of democratic development in Cambodia. Nobody ever imagined then that Cambodia would turn into the autocratic state that it is today, after such a strong democratic blessing from the world.
Now that hope of using Cambodia's transformation as a model for developing countries is long gone. As the youngest member of Asean, Cambodia serves as an active and adroit balancing wheel between the old and new members. However, that balance broke down last year when it failed to issue the annual ASEAN joint communique.