Cambodia’s recent elections open another chapter in a region that has largely rejected Western democratic models and liberal ideals. This is a society where traditional beliefs have shaped successive administrations, where the paternalistic culture flies in the face of popular sovereignty, and where neopatrimonialism – a hybrid political system where customs and traditions co-exist alongside the rational legal institutions of the state – remains the predominant form of governance.
Initiatives to build democracy in Cambodia since 1991 have met with little success. This is partly the result of the international community’s failure to account for Cambodia’s own perception of its history, combined with an inability to perceive the political and cultural realities on the ground. While governments and donors have continually advocated for democracy and human rights, they have prioritized political stability with a focus on a multiparty parliamentary system and civil society, contributing to a cyclical pattern of failure. At the same time Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have viewed democratization as a self-serving fiction and a threat to their existing networks of governance, undermining the democratic agenda for personal gain.
While democratic ideals and elections remain important sources of regime legitimacy, neopatrimonialism remains the predominant influence on Cambodia’s political trajectory. Despite the international community’s belief that elections are sufficient to ensure democratic governance in Cambodia, polls have been utilized as a redistribution mechanism for patronage. Since 1993, Hun Sen and the CPP have utilized elections to maintain a democratic mirage internationally to secure development aid, while the electoral process has been abused domestically to build party membership and reinforce the CPP’s authority, linking the distribution of development projects to support at the polls and thereby making the party-state indispensable to citizens.
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Despite the CPP’s manipulation of the electoral process and the continuing expansion of patronage throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the international community remained convinced that Cambodia was on a political trajectory to becoming a fully-fledged democracy, with donors pledging billions of dollars in an attempt to maintain the momentum of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Given Cambodia’s violent past, the bar was set low. Hun Sen and the CPP were viewed as the lesser evil while unprecedented access to international aid and free market economics entrenched corruption with the CPP, diverting financial resources in order to establish a highly centralized opaque network that encompasses political, economic and military elites.
International donors advocating for a greater emphasis on democracy and human rights have now been supplanted through China’s strategic efforts to assert itself politically and economically across Southeast Asia. With little in the way of conditions established, the influx of aid and investment from China is a welcome respite for Hun Sen and the CPP, given their continued frustration at having to maintain a democratic façade. Cambodia has been flooded by increasing Chinese aid and investment, which is funding construction and infrastructure projects across the country in addition to the establishment of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Sihanoukville.
With greater capacity to maneuver, Hun Sen and the CPP undertook a systemic altering of the country’s constitutional and legal framework to overwhelm political opponents and civil society. These efforts accelerated after popular discontent became widely evident, with tens of thousands attending the funeral procession of outspoken political activist Kem Ley, followed by the 2017 commune elections. The end result was the dissolution of the main position party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in November 2017, and the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, who has been charged with treason.
While Cambodia was never a democracy, the presence of the CNRP and their impact in the 2013 elections did create some space for debate and, to a lesser extent, some reforms within the CPP, even if these were largely symbolic, such as engaging the youth via social media. However, with the CPP’s alleged outright electoral victory marking the end of the Cambodia’s dalliance with democratic ideals, this is no longer likely. While 19 opposition parties were allowed to compete in the recent elections, Cambodia’s electoral system is designed to put smaller parties at a strategic disadvantage. A more worrying concern has been integration of the security apparatus into the governance structures of the state, with military figures loyal to Hun Sen being promoted in the run up to elections and the CPP fielding candidates from the military and police.