By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia won't hold a general election for another two years. But look at Prime Minister Hun Sen, its long-ruling and mercurial strongman, and you'd think one was imminent.
Hun Sen's party narrowly won the last election in 2013 after losing seats to a resurgent opposition that shook his decades-long grip on power.
Now, with a familiar mix of guile and ruthlessness, Hun Sen is stepping up attempts to boost his popularity, blunt the opposition and avert a potential disaster in 2018, say analysts.
That election will be closely watched as Hun Sen, one of China's closest allies in Southeast Asia, fights to extend his rule. Only Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and a handful of other autocrats have held power for longer.
In an internal report circulated at the weekend, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) said it had fired or hired hundreds of officials in reforms aimed at regaining the "warmth and trust" of the people.
Hun Sen recently gave salary bumps to civil servants and workers in the politically sensitive garment sector, and relaxed unpopular laws relating to motorbike licenses and inheritance tax.
He has also turned up the heat on his long-time political foe Sam Rainsy, a leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Sam Rainsy fled to France in November to avoid arrest for an old defamation case which critics say was revived at Hun Sen's bidding.
The prime minister has also begun to harness the power of the Internet to soften his ferocious image and reach the youthful voters who deserted him in 2013.
A late adopter of social media, Hun Sen is now locked in a closely watched popularity contest with Sam Rainsy on Facebook. Latest score: the prime minister's page has 1.8 million "likes," his rival's has two million.
Hun Sen recently launched a slick personal website and even his own cellphone app.
But some analysts question whether any of this will be enough to dispel widespread disenchantment with Hun Sen's iron-fisted rule.
The beating of lawmakers from Sam Rainsy's party by Hun Sen loyalists in October suggested a return to form for a man who, in a televised speech in 2005, told political opponents to "prepare coffins and say their wills to their wives."
Other opposition politicians have been jailed, while protests - including one by garment workers last month - violently dispersed.
Hun Sen's strategy is to squeeze the opposition and recast himself as a reformer who is doing "something good for the people," said Koul Panha of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, an election watchdog based in the capital Phnom Penh.
"But his leadership style is still about fear and coercing voters - no change there," he added.
THE MYANMAR EFFECT
Analysts said Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was rattled by November's historic election in Myanmar, where an authoritarian incumbent was trounced by a long-persecuted democratic opposition with a charismatic leader.
The scale of the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy over its army-backed rival surprised many pollsters.
The Myanmar result was "a welcome development", CPP member of parliament Suos Yara told Reuters, and it confirmed his party's long-held belief that "the only way to win election is to make sure that people from all political backgrounds can have a better life."
Hun Sen's attempts to reform his party and image were neither credible nor effective, Sam Rainsy told Reuters by email.
Any genuine reform of the CPP would undermine the cronyism and corruption upon which the party was founded, he said.
"The CPP has become more and more anachronistic," he said.
A former finance minister, Sam Rainsy has twice returned from self-imposed exile to fight general elections after Hun Sen signed royal pardons clearing him of charges.
The prime minister vowed in December to "cut off my right arm" rather than sign another one.
Even so, says analyst Koul Panha, Sam Rainsy's return is likely, because an election fought without the opposition leader won't have the legitimacy the CPP craves.
"Hun Sen needs Sam Rainsy to come back," he said.
(Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Robert Birsel)