Organization without Revolution: The Labour Movement and the Failure of Democratization in Cambodia.

AuthorYoung, Sokphea

In the democratization literature, workers have been considered an important and decisive actor in rallying for democracy. Diverging from Barrington Moore's "no bourgeois, no democracy" (1) contingency thesis, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens and John Stephens argue that capitalist development strengthens the organizational capacity of the working class, which enables them to pressure for democracy. (2) In the same vein, Ruth Collier and James Mahoney argue that labour movements play a prominent role in delegitimatizing authoritarian regimes. (3) However, the opposite consideration--why some labour movements fail to mobilize in support of democratic revolution--is less established in the literature. (4) In other words, what accounts for the failure of some labour movements to transform their agenda "from workplace demands to demands for broad political liberties"? (5) Democratic revolutions can be both non-violent and violent urban-based, mass uprisings that push for an end to authoritarian rule and demand a transition to democracy. However, this article posits that democratic revolutions do not necessarily entail the toppling of the dictator or ruling party. Labour movements can apply sufficient pressure on the regime that the ruling elites agree--while maintaining their grip on power--to adopt radical reforms that fundamentally reshape prevailing institutional arrangements such as fair elections, imposition of executive term limits, judicial reform and military professionalization. (6) Existing theories of labour's democratic behaviour focus on the moment when labour has "burst onto the political scene" and challenged dictatorial rule. (7) This article aims to complement this body of literature with accounts of de-radicalized labour movements--less extreme political opposition and lacking strong social institutional parameters, such as alliances with and among local and international social and political actors--that fail to establish themselves as forces of democratization.

Cambodia is a good example of the lack of labour-led democratic movements, even though such labour movements are perceived by scholars as radical actors of democratization in this electoral authoritarian country." Political liberalization following the general elections organized by the United Nations (UN) in 1993 created space for the formation of Cambodia's first labour union, the Free Trade Unions of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), whose leader, Chea Vichea, had close ties with the opposition leader, Sam Rainsy. (9) These two leaders were credited with an unprecedented level of labour activism during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as they led workers' protests to demand higher wages and better working conditions. In the early 2010s, labour movements and unions appeared to have coalesced with the opposition party, indicating democratic intent. However, that intent has not escalated into democratic action as the ruling regime has consistently tried to break the coalition between organized labour and the opposition parties, as well as other social actors. From late 2013 to early 2014, workers staged the biggest strike in Cambodian history, demanding a doubling of the minimum wage from US$80 to US$160 per month. The strike suggested a move from democratic intent to democratic action. However, as it appeared to unite with mass demonstrations organized by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen--leader of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP)--and fresh elections, the mass strike was violently suppressed. (10) Following this violent suppression, the labour unions were gradually co-opted by the ruling regime to weaken and de-radicalize the labour movement, as well as to sever their links with the opposition parties and other actors.

This article argues that the lack of labour-driven democratic revolution in Cambodia cannot be satisfactorily explained by the contingency thesis, which argues that labour's democratic mobilization is most likely when they are disadvantaged by the policies of authoritarian regimes. In the Cambodian context, repression and mistreatment of pro-opposition labour unions have not triggered mass mobilizations aimed explicitly at broad political reform or regime change as a means to redress labour issues, as in historical cases that inform the contingency argument. This article further argues that the absence of escalation to democratic revolution must be understood by adopting a more structural approach in order to grasp the capacity factors that constrain labour's democratic mobilization. Capacity, as emphasized here, is beyond organizational factors such as worker unionization, union density and movement leadership. Instead, it is more related to the ability to form sufficiently strong coalitions with different interest groups that share similar political goals. Coupled with the ability of the ruling regime and associated elites to suppress and co-opt labour movements, it is the absence or weakness of these coalitions that contributes to Cambodian labour's lack of democratic mobilization.

This article is structured as followed. First, it addresses the limitations of applying the contingency framework to the Cambodian context. Second, the origin of Cambodian labour unions is reviewed to show how the international environment, under which the labour movement emerged, contributes to its de-radicalization as characterized by the weak linkage between labour unions and the opposition party as well as other groups. Third, the article draws on the literature on civil resistance and authoritarian politics to inform an empirical analysis (11) of how Cambodia's domestic political environment contributes to the weakness of societal elites and hence pre-empts broad-based alliances between these elites and workers, and the way in which the CPP's resilience--driven by the incentives of the elites--impedes the emergence of radicalized labour movements.

The Limitations of the Contingency Argument

Many theories explain how democratic transition is induced by labour movements. Agency-based explanations that regard democratization as a negotiated outcome achieved by political elites have been challenged by structure-based explanations that centre on the role of social forces. Further arguments on whether capital (12) or labour (13) is the most salient agent of democracy animate the debate. While the question of whether labour plays a role in the transition to democracy is largely settled, the question of when it is more likely to behave as such is debatable. Recent research has cast doubt on labour's democratic commitment: labour movements act as "major engines in the protest against the authoritarian rule" (14) in some contexts and trigger the overthrow of elected governments by military coups in others. Like other organized interests, workers are "contingent democrats for the very reason that they are consistent defenders of their material interests". (15) Eva Bellin argues that labour's attitude towards democracy is contingent on their "state dependence" and "aristocratic position", (16) which may resonate in the case of Cambodia's electoral authoritarianism. In Mexico, when National Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) lost power in the late 1980s, labour was provided with generous organizational and material gains by the state--acceptable minimum wage, financial subsidies, profit-sharing and social welfare--to defuse pressure to democratize the regime. Thus, as a rational actor, labour is disincentivized from eroding its privileges by promoting a form of democracy that would allow the regime to build alternative support bases and respond to mass interests. (17) Meanwhile, the labour aristocracy hypothesis--the extent to which organized labour is economically privileged vis-a-vis the general population and enthusiastic for democracy (18)--accounts for the indifference of workers in South Korea in the mid-1980s when workers and unions staged various collective actions towards democracy, and the absence of the Arab Spring in Algeria. (19)

Cambodia's labour movement appears to diverge from these cases. It intended to delegitimatize the authoritarian ruling system in support of democratic reforms, but was oppressed and prevented from engaging in meaningful political mobilization.

Based on the Latin American experience, Steven Levitsky and Scott Mainwaring concur with Bellin's contingency thesis. (20) They contend that what is important in labour's strategic calculation is not regime type, i.e. autocracy versus democracy, but regime policy, i.e. inclusionary versus exclusionary. (21) Historically, inclusionary authoritarian regimes incorporated workers and union leaders by offering them "unprecedented material, organizational, and symbolic benefits", and they "strengthened labor movements, expanded worker rights and benefits, created new channels of union access to the state, and placed union leaders in important positions of power". (22) Thus, labour's indifference to democracy may be "entirely rational" rather than exceptional. (23) Only when exclusionary regimes that threaten labour's interests are in power do workers support a democratic transition. Yet while co-optation of union leaders may explain the democratic apathy of pro-government labour unions, it cannot explain the indifference of marginalized labour unions that proclaim their independence from the government and those that openly support pro-democracy opposition parties. Neither Bellin, nor Levitsky and Mainwaring, investigated the variation in labour behaviour as a result of an authoritarian regime's divide and rule strategy.

The limit of the contingency argument is that it is largely an incentive-based explanation. While it is appropriate in some contexts, it is incomplete when it comes to a post-conflict country like Cambodia, where...

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