Introduction to Special Issue: The Cambodian People's Party's Turn to Hegemonic Authoritarianism: Strategies and Envisaged Futures.

AuthorLoughlin, Neil

In July 2018, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) claimed 77 per cent of the popular vote in national elections, winning all 125 seats in the country's National Assembly. The CPP had ran effectively unopposed after the dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) the previous year. This brought to an end two and a half decades of competitive authoritarianism and ushered in a new era of hegemonic authoritarian rule. (1) Prior to this development, scholarship on contemporary Cambodian politics had focused on explaining the CPP's "success" under competitive authoritarianism.

Yet this only provided a limited set of tools to understand and analyse the CPP's strategies as it steered the country into a new era of non-competitive politics during the fifth decade of CPP domination. By focusing on issues of regime reproduction and innovation, this special issue of Contemporary Southeast Asia explores how the CPP has navigated the shift from competitive to hegemonic rule, and uses this regime transition as a starting point to examine how the CPP seeks to engineer and model Cambodia's political future.

The 2018 one-horse race election was the culmination of a gradual narrowing of space for the political opposition, civil society, free media and other voices contesting the CPP's dominance. In August 2017, the Cambodian government--headed by Hun Sen, who was first installed as prime minister in 1985 during Vietnam's occupation--launched a crackdown on the country's independent media by aggressively pursuing tax and other grievances that were largely a facade to quieten critical voices. In September, Kem Sokha, President of the country's main opposition party, the CNRP, was arrested on charges of treason. In November, the CNRP was dissolved by the Cambodian Supreme Court for plotting an alleged "colour revolution" with foreign backing. The CPP then went on to win all 125 National Assembly seats in the July 2018 national elections, which were neither free nor fair.

Yet the timeline of this transition is necessarily more complex. It is rooted in a longer arc of events stretching back to the imposition of democracy by the United Nations in the early 1990s, after which competitive elections were held but which were characterized by the intimidation and coercion of voters, opposition parties, and the CPP's critics, and with the playing field overwhelming tipped in favour of the ruling party. It was shaped by the inconsistent conceptions of democracy and national identity that emerged since, (2) as well as conflicting pulls on the CPP as it navigated the competing demands between its evolving ruling coalition and those who had benefitted far less from the country's post-conflict reconstruction. (3) The 2018 transition was, in this sense, the final conclusion to the country's 2013 electoral crisis. The opposition CNRP had finished a close second to the CPP in the 2013 national elections, breaking the CPP's steady vote share increase in each election since the reintroduction of multi-party elections in 1993. The CNRP rejected the official election results and organized mass protests, until the government banned demonstrations in January 2014. A one-year political truce, from 2014 to 2015, ended with the violent repression of the CNRP as government security forces took to the streets to quell opposition protests involving workers and other demonstrators, after which a string of lawsuits were levied by the government against leading opposition parliamentarians and grassroots activists. Despite this, the CNRP performed extraordinarily well in the 2017 commune elections, suggesting that it could have possibly defeated the CPP in 2018 had it been allowed to run.

What was different about the 2013 elections was not primarily the strength of the opposition's electoral performance, which in terms of the percentage of the popular vote was far superior to 2008 but similar to the string of national elections since 1993 up until then. (4) Instead, the crucial difference was the unification of previously fragmented opposition groups into one political party, enabling it to pose a credible challenge to the CPP. (5) This was a threat that continued to grow after the 2013 elections. This development was accompanied by a sense of optimism among opposition supporters. Campaign rallies followed by post-election protests built up a democratic momentum that saw Cambodians taking to the streets to demand political change. (6) A variety of political figures--advancing different democratization agendas--moved from the fringes of national politics to the centre stage. (7) This momentum for political change, however, gradually faded. It flared up briefly following the murder of grassroots activist Kem Ley in 2016, but was conclusively extinguished with the transition to hegemonic authoritarianism.

This special issue argues that the 2013 elections fundamentally shook the CPP's rule as envisaged and practised from 1993. It triggered a range of responses from the CPP, responses that anticipated and were implicated in the imposition of hegemonic authoritarian rule. The 2013 election results revealed that the CPP's project of rule was flawed. The CPP was not steadily becoming a formidable hegemonic party, election by election, as previously believed. (8) For one, CPP mass patronage had evidently not succeeded in buying the party the electoral clients it thought it had. The CPP and scholars of Cambodia alike had assumed that the party's provincial patronage system--delivering development goods in return for steady support at the ballot box--was a secure foundation for its electoral success. (9) Yet, a 2013-14 study of Cambodian voters from across the political spectrum revealed that voters had rejected the CPP's gift-giving and local development patronage practices and did not reciprocate with votes. (10) This tension revealed how the party's excessive pandering to regime elites, through the expropriation of resources from ordinary Cambodians, had undermined its performance legitimacy and, ultimately, its patronage system and electoral stability. (11) Young people, who made up the majority of the electorate in 2013, sought political change (12) as a result of their political and economic marginalization under the CPP. (13)

The democratic momentum that built up in connection with the 2013 elections further eroded the CPP's hold on power. The opposition's growing presence in rural areas, the CPP's traditional electoral base, signalled to the party that its system of domination was also being challenged in the countryside, and that its electoral core was far less robust than had previously been assumed. (14) This became clear in the 2017 commune elections, in which the CPP won 50.76 per cent of the vote compared to the CNRP's 43.83 per cent. This was a significant shift from the previous commune elections in 2012, in which the CPP won 61.8 per cent while the then-fragmented opposition won only a combined 30.7 per cent. Commune elections have reflected the villagers' high levels of dependence on local authorities for resources, gifts, local development and support, meaning that the CPP has typically performed stronger in local than national elections. (15) The 2017 commune elections revealed how the CNRP was now challenging the CPP, not only in the cities but also in the provinces.

The realization that the competitive authoritarian formula was far less stable than previously assumed prompted an immediate recalibration by the CPP, in tandem with a pause as it attempted to take stock of the "countermovement" that had arisen to threaten its grip on power. (16) Cambodia's "democratic moment" was at once an opportunity for the CPP to restructure and rebuild its bases. The CPP granted economic concessions which included the tripling of salaries for civil servants and garment workers.' (7) The youth, who were intensely courted in the lead-up to the 2013 elections, were pulled into a variety of initiatives, including the newly rebranded Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC). The CPP also attempted to address the worst excesses of the land crisis that had engulfed the country in the 2000s and early 2010s. (18)

The shift to hegemonic authoritarianism, the product of the CPP's intensive reflection and recalibration, cut the Gordian knot by forcing a complete...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT