Hun Sen's Consolidation of Personal Rule and the Closure of Political Space in Cambodia.

AuthorSutton, Jonathan

Although democracy has always been more of a chimera than a reality in Cambodia, for many observers the dramatic escalation of repression in 2017 marked a turn away from even the illusion of democracy towards "outright dictatorship". (1) The crackdown, initiated shortly after the local commune elections in June, began with the closure of media and non-governmental organizations, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia radio stations, the US-backed National Democracy Institute and the English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily, which had been highly critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government. (2) Shortly afterwards, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha was arrested on trumped-up charges, without a warrant and in violation of his parliamentary immunity. (3)

The crackdown culminated in the formal dissolution of the CNRP on 16 November 2017, with the party's national assembly seats and commune council positions redistributed--mostly to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP)--and its senior officials banned from politics for five years. (4) Mu Sochua, who had taken over as party leader following the arrest of Kem Sokha, was forced to flee the country along with a number of other senior party figures, while former leader Sam Rainsy has been threatened with treason charges and remains in exile in France. (5) The CPP followed up with a campaign of intimidation and coerced defections against CNRP members at the grassroots level, with Hun Sen ordering officials to "break the legs" of the party. (6) With civil society cowed by the crackdown and the remaining opposition parties not presenting a serious challenge to the CPP, Cambodia is currently undergoing a period of political closure that is unprecedented since the end of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) administration and the elections that were supposed to bring multiparty democracy to the country in 1993.

In explaining these developments, existing analysis has emphasized two main factors. The first is the increasingly prominent role of China as an economic and diplomatic backer of the Hun Sen regime. (7) This support, together with declining pressure for democratization from Western governments, has given Hun Sen greater freedom to manoeuvre against domestic challenges to his position. The second is the emergence for the first time in years of an opposition party capable of challenging the CPP's hold on power. (8) Not only did the CNRP perform far better than the CPP had anticipated in the 2013 general election--securing 44.5 per cent of the vote against the CPP's 48.8 per cent--but the subsequent months-long protest campaign in Phnom Penh over the allegedly fraudulent result was the largest display of mass mobilization that Cambodia has seen since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The CNRP's strong performance in the 2017 local elections further signalled that the party continued to pose a serious threat to the CPP's ability to convincingly win the 2018 general election.

This article adds to this analysis by highlighting the importance of internal changes within the CPP in explaining the nature and extent of the crackdown. It argues that the death of Senate President Chea Sim in June 2015, while receiving little attention from the outside world, (9) marked a major turning point in Cambodian politics, as his passing effectively removed the final limitations on Hun Sen's personal power from within the regime. Following this, Cambodia has transitioned from what this article refers to as a power-sharing regime, in which Hun Sen faced internal constraints on his rule, to personal autocracy, where these constraints are effectively absent and he now is able to rule almost entirely at his own discretion. (10)

This transition has important consequences for how the political situation is likely to evolve. Past episodes of repression have typically been followed by negotiation and some form of compromise with political opponents, albeit always on terms favourable to Hun Sen and the CPP. Yet with Hun Sen no longer moderated by the need to balance competing interests inside or outside the regime, a compromise solution that would allow space to challenge his dominance is now highly unlikely. The article thus highlights the importance of changes in the balance of power within the CPP in understanding likely future trajectories for Cambodian politics.

The article begins by setting out the conceptual framework, drawn from research on comparative authoritarianism, in which regimes can be divided into power-sharing or personal autocracy based on the relative balance of power between autocrats and their elite allies. It then examines power struggles within the CPP since Hun Sen first took power in 1985, highlighting the marked shift in the ruling coalition that has taken place since Chea Sim's death and arguing that this represents a critical juncture in Cambodia's recent political history, as it is the first time that Hun Sen has gained outright control over both the party and the state apparatus. It then discusses the implications of this shift in the context of the ongoing closure of political space in Cambodia.

Conceptual Framework: Power-sharing and Personal Autocracy

In order to maintain their rule, authoritarian leaders rely on the support of a broad governing network, including the military and internal security forces, political parties, the state bureaucracy, business leaders, the media, academia and other areas of society. (11) Within this network is the ruling coalition, the leader's core group of supporters who together wield substantial political power. (12) In Cambodia, this group consists primarily of upper levels of the CPP, most of whom defected from the Khmer Rouge in 1977 or gained their positions during the Vietnamese occupation of the country from 1979 to 1989. To obtain this support, leaders agree to share the benefits of holding power, such as influence over policy, profits from natural resource exploitation and opportunities for bribery and graft. (13) As well as enabling access to resources and decision-making, leaders will also typically maintain functioning legislatures and governing councils, share key government posts among different factions of the political elite, and accept both formal and informal limits on their own decision-making authority. These institutional characteristics allow elites to monitor the leader's commitment to continue sharing power and can assist them in coordinating to remove the leader if this commitment begins to look doubtful. (14)

In this article these forms of authoritarian government are referred to as power-sharing regimes. Although institutional features vary, their defining characteristic is that the ruler of the regime is not able to act entirely as they see fit in relation to the ruling coalition. (15) Although they may be powerful in regard to those outside the regime, within the regime they must take the interests of other centres of power into account when making decisions, either because of institutional limits on their position or as a pragmatic response to the status quo distribution of power. (16) These centres may include individual elites who have independent political or economic power as well as larger groupings, factions or autonomous institutions within the regime. In Cambodian politics, the most relevant competing centre of power constraining Hun Sen was the former faction centred on Chea Sim and associated with other influential figures such as Heng Samrin, Sar Kheng, and Say Chhum, although prior to his abdication in 2004 the monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk played an important role as well.

Although the vast majority of authoritarian regimes begin with power-sharing arrangements, these are not always stable, and can be subverted by ambitious autocrats who wish to acquire more power for themselves or deter potential threats from powerful rivals within the regime. (17) Autocrats can gain power at the expense of their elite allies by carrying out overt power grabs, such as eliminating term limits or purging rivals, or by more gradually building up their own support base while undermining those of others by filling core ministries with supporters, modifying internal rules, and diverting resources and authority away from rivals, tactics that Dan Slater labels "packing, rigging, and circumventing". (18)

Attempting to personalize power is risky, often triggering coup attempts from within the military or ruling coalition. (19) Indeed, the abortive coup attempt in Cambodia in 1994, discussed below, is alleged to have stemmed from dissatisfaction with Hun Sen's increasing influence within the CPP. (20) Yet, if successful, personalization may result in the elimination or undermining of rival elite coalitions, autonomous institutions, or constitutional or other institutional constraints that had limited the ruler's authority, allowing the ruler to concentrate power over decision-making, coercion, and the distribution of resources in their own hands. (21) In doing so leaders typically gain full personal control of drafting and passing legislation, establish parallel security and intelligence agencies that bypass regular security force hierarchies, gain complete authority over government appointments and carry out personnel rotations in the government and military. (22) This article refers to these forms of government as personal autocracy; while only a minority of leaders ever achieve this level of power, those who do often remain in office until they die or are forced to retire by ill health. (23)

While institutional characteristics may vary across cases, the defining characteristic of personal autocracy is that autocracy leaders are not constrained in their decision-making by the need to take competing interests within the regime into account, or indeed any other kind of rules-based procedures or institutional...

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