Beyond Personalism: Elite Politics and Political Families in Cambodia.

AuthorLoughlin, Neil

In 2013, shortly before the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) narrowly won elections held that year for the National Assembly, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was born in 1952, claimed that he would stay in power until he was 74 years old. (1) In 2020, he predicted that he would stay on as the country's leader for another decade. (2) So long as he remains healthy, there is little reason to doubt his prediction. If he realizes his goal to lead the country until 2030, he will have been Cambodia's prime minister for nearly half a century. A number of recent scholarly analyses and media commentaries have focused on Hun Sen's remarkable longevity, drawing attention to his personalist rule. (3) In personalist regimes, the leader welds concentrated power and exercises personal control over the political system. (4) There is extensive empirical evidence demonstrating that Hun Sen sits at the apex of the country's political, military and crony-capitalist business network that defines Cambodia's political economy. Scholars agree that the prime minister has amassed considerable power during his more than three decades in power. However, there is a divergence of opinion over the extent of the prime minister's personalization of that power, and thus his relationship with his elite supporters. (5)

Hun Sen's advancing age also raises the question of what will happen to the CPP regime and Cambodia as a whole after he dies. This is particularly significant given the grisly fate that often befalls personalist dictators, and the difficulties in realizing their succession plans. Drawing on literature that focuses on coalitional arrangements for the ordering of political power in authoritarian regimes, (6) this article contributes to our understanding of how power is organized in Cambodia. It does so by drawing attention to the twin pressures facing the prime minister in managing horizontal and vertical threats to his rule, (7) which have been observed within the prime minister's ruling coalition since the close-fought 2013 elections and the country's "transition to hegemonic authoritarianism". (8) This article examines the endurance of the marriage between state and party, coercion and capital that, combined with an elite-driven and uneven project of co-optation, has underpinned a contested post-conflict political settlement that has been reproduced and periodically renegotiated over more than four decades of the CPP's rule.

The intertwining of state and party, military and capitalist interests is further visible in Hun Sen's attempt to manage "hereditary succession" within his ruling coalition (9) and the entrenchment of political families in Cambodia's ruling hierarchy. These broader power considerations within the elite are not sufficiently captured in the personalist literature on Cambodia. In addressing this gap, this article provides a logic to Hun Sen's authoritarian rule--namely, that Hun Sen seeks to ensure his pre-eminence among the elite while being cognizant of and responsive to the interests of these same elites who support him and of the pressures on them all from below. This article does not seek to predict the success of this arrangement for a post-Hun Sen future. Instead, it will draw attention to the process of dynastic succession as a means to understand how power is exercised in Cambodia, and suggest that personalism should be studied as a regime trait rather than regime type, the latter being the dominant approach in the current literature on Hun Sen's personalist rule. This approach allows the author to make a broader assessment of the nature of political power in contemporary Cambodia, beyond the narrow focus on Hun Sen as a personalist dictator.

Various commentators have noted the increasingly prominent role of the prime minister's children in the upper echelons of politics and business. (10) In 2018, Hun Sen publicly fuelled speculation that he would eventually hand over power to his eldest son, Hun Manet. (11) Manet, who is now the Commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, has refused to deny that he harbours political ambitions. (12) Hun Sen's other sons also hold leadership positions in the CPP and the country's security forces--Hun Manith is the Deputy Head of the Military Intelligence Unit, while Hun Many is a CPP National Assembly member and youth leader. Hun Sen's daughters are prominent business figures. Less acknowledged--but what this article contends is equally important in understanding Cambodia's political trajectory--is the prime minister's succession process vis-a-vis other elites. Children of the regime's elites are also being groomed for leadership roles within the party and/or to exercise key military or business roles, often simultaneously. This suggests that the prime minister needs to be attentive to the needs of his essential backers within the elite, an element that is largely not captured in existing personalist literature.

Hun Sun's attentiveness to the needs of his coalition is in stark contrast to the violence and repression that his government has utilized to deal with resistance from below that have periodically threatened his grip on power. This is the legacy of a schism between state and society that was embedded in the process of state and regime-making from the 1980s, and which continues to define Cambodian politics in the present. This is reflected in the critical institutions of power within Hun Sen's coalition, and it remains the central threat against which the ruling coalition is organized and coheres in order to maintain their grip on the country into the next generation.

This article draws on a range of sources obtained during fieldwork in Cambodia between 2017 and 2020. These include speeches made by Hun Sen and other government officials, official CPP documents and internal party literature, interviews with senior party and military officials, business leaders, as well as insights from former government insiders, political analysts, embassy officials, and rural and urban youth, among others. The article begins by exploring current debates on Hun Sen's personalism and suggests that it is useful to shift analytical focus from the prime minister to the make-up and organizational logic of his coalition, as well as their primary motives for ordering political power in Cambodia. It goes on to discuss Hun Sen's relationship with his coalition by exploring the critical pillars of authoritarianism in Cambodia, focusing on the dynastic politics within and between the members and key institutions. It concludes by restating the main findings and briefly discussing the CPP's post-Hun Sen prospects.

Elite Power Dynamics in Cambodia

In most scholarly and journalistic accounts of Cambodian politics, Hun Sen is presented as a "strongman" leader or, more recently, as a personalist dictator. (13) The terms "strongman" and "personalist dictator" are often used interchangeably in the comparative politics literature. (14) In personalist dictatorships, the leader has become so powerful that their position is practically unassailable. In these regimes, "the dictator has effectively eliminated the ruling coalition, whose support is no longer necessary for his survival". (15) When applied to Cambodia, the strongman descriptions of Hun Sen's leadership often stem from analyses that frame the country's politics through the prism of neo-patrimonial politics and political behaviour. (16) According to Michael Bratton and Nicolas Van De Walle, personalist dictatorship is "the quintessence of neopatrimonialism". (17) Personalism has been used to describe the process by which the prime minister has come to exercise power over his ruling coalition. It has allowed scholars to "timestamp" the point at which the prime minister effectively came to dominate important institutions in Cambodia, though there is disagreement over when this occurred--either with the death of former CPP President Chea Sim in 2015 (18) or Chea Sim's political denouement a decade earlier. (19) These have provided useful analysis of the ways in which the prime minister has stacked existing political institutions in his favour and/or created new ones to better serve his needs and interests.

One of the most comprehensive treatments of personalism in Cambodia is provided by Lee Morgenbesser, who has categorized Cambodia as both a "personalist dictatorship" and "party-personalist" regime. (20) Hun Sen's personalism is "the dominant characteristic of a regime reliably underpinned by both family loyalty and military cooperation, but competitive elections are [also] indispensable to the CPP's dominance". (21) However, in Cambodia's current political context, electoral competition has been effectively outlawed and replaced with openly repressive hegemonic authoritarianism. (22) This begs the question of whether the regime should be classified as party-personalist or some other label reflecting the functional importance of other institutions and elites in maintaining the prime minister's power.

In his recent analysis of Cambodia's authoritarianism, Kheang Un questioned the utility of the personalist label as it fails to explain why Hun Sen continues to work through important political structures to make institutional appointments, rather than doing so by diktat and without institutional and elite power considerations. (23) Un highlights the way the prime minister continues to manage factions within the CPP but has failed to punish rogue members among his supporters. This suggests that Cambodia's autocracy is more "contested" within his coalition than purely personalist. (24) In Un's view, this can be explained by the country's patron-client system, through which Hun Sen's power rests on the support of lower patrons. This reading is also problematic however, given that patron-clientelism is the core organizational principle of neo-patrimonialism, of which personalism is the "quintessence".

This article suggests that the divergence...

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