Cambodia’s Long March Toward Democracy

Cambodia has just taken a crucial step toward more participatory politics. But further progress toward democracy is likely to be slow and evolutionary rather than sudden and dramatic.

Omar Havana/Getty Images
Omar Havana/Getty Images

On July 22, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen finally announced a deal to end a ten-month standoff between the government and the opposition, which has been boycotting parliament as part of its protest against disputed elections last year. Rainsy has now agreed to let his party take up seats in the National Assembly in exchange for an overhaul of the election commission, the release of eight opposition leaders arrested in recent clashes with government security forces, and a grab-bag of other reforms. Though still controversial, the deal may yet herald a new turn in Cambodian politics.

Since 1993, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian politics in semi-authoritarian fashion. The CPP held regular elections, but the opposition never had a chance of winning due to widespread fraud, intimidation, and lack of capital. In 2013, however, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) shattered this paradigm. The new opposition coalition came within a whisker of beating the CPP on a platform saying that they’d had "enough" and promising "change," which appealed to a youthful, tech-savvy, and urban-centric demographic excluded from the spoils of political power, tired of rampant corruption and the oligarchic management of the economy, and unhappy at the prospect of dynastic succession among nouveau-rich families and clans.

Though the change and fallout of the Arab Spring reverberated globally, Cambodia’s "almost democratic breakthrough" in 2013 and this week’s deal are best understood as part of a slow evolution rather than a "revolutionary" change or upheaval as in the Middle East. The CNRP’s near victory was possible because of elite miscalculation and infighting within the CPP, the opposition’s newfound organization, and tacit support from Cambodia’s neighbors. (Both Vietnam and China are equally weary of Hun Sen’s reign.)

Hun Sen has long recognized that the CPP, which initially came to power on the coattails of the Vietnamese in 1979, needs legitimacy from the ballot box to cement its claim to rule. Periodic elections, however flawed, offered a fig leaf for continued authoritarian rule, allowing Cambodia’s leaders to assert their superiority to Vietnam and China. They also set the stage for the genuinely contested parliamentary election last year.

Dissent within the party has been simmering for years. Over time, Hun Sen has become an institution that eclipses all others, including the CPP, the military, and the police. The party and its leader habitually renew their vows, but for at least the past five years Hun Sen has ruled by fiat, ignoring the CPP’s Standing and Central Committees, and in no small way contributing to the CPP’s malaise. In fact, Hun Sen has been running the country through his public speeches much like Cambodia’s ex-King Sihanouk did in the 1950s and 1960s. The discord came to a head in the wake of the 2012 local elections, when — despite another landslide victory for the ruling party — the opposition made clear inroads in the CPP heartland provinces of Prey Veng and Kampong Cham. The loss of influence clearly reflected party dissent. According to the Economist, of the 5.7 million CPP members, roughly half failed to vote for the CPP. At an internal party meeting in August 2012, just 11 months before the 2013 elections, Hun Sen berated individuals by name for sloth, corruption, and ostentatious displays of wealth, and ordered CPP parliamentarians to spend their weekends in the provinces with their constituencies.

After their surprising gains in 2012, the Cambodian opposition approached the 2013 elections with gusto, knocking on provincial doors well in advance of the campaign period. Two of the parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, joined together to form the CNRP and developed a national platform to increase monthly salaries and the minimum wage and improve access to health care.

After winning 55 of 123 parliamentary seats in 2013, the CNRP cried foul, citing widespread vote tampering to buttress its claim that it deserved a much greater share of the seats than awarded to it. Opposition leaders then decided to boycott parliament unless the government granted concessions. Under this week’s compromise, the CNRP will take its seats in return for reform of the National Election Commission and an enhanced role in the National Assembly, including the chairmanship of several legislative committees. The opposition also won a marginal concession from Hun Sen to bring forward the next national elections by five months to February 2018, in which they hope to fare even better. Finally, the prime minister allowed the release on bail of eight opposition leaders who are currently in jail on charges of abetting insurrection; they will acquire parliamentary immunity upon taking their seats. (The photo above shows parliamentarian-elect Ho Vann greeting supporters after his release from prison on July 22.)  Though both Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy are lauding the compromise that ends nearly a year of political deadlock, critics see it as temporary fix, kicking the can down the road for future institutional reforms.

But those critics may be missing one crucial facet of the bargain: It emerges at a moment when the country’s main partners, China and Vietnam, are equally frustrated with the CPP. In 2005, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai publicly denounced corruption in Cambodia, and in 2007 a Vietnamese delegation delivered blunt messages to the CPP. Vietnam might not be a democracy, they argued, but it does allow for change within the leadership; Cambodia should follow its lead. Similarly, they said, Vietnam debated policy in its national assembly; so should the Cambodians.

China, meanwhile, has quietly given the Cambodian leadership similar messages, pointing out to CPP chiefs that the Chinese Communist Party has now set a retirement age of 68 for top leaders, and 65 for senior officials. At 61, Hun Sen still has another seven years left — but there many old-guard CPP members who are long past their due date. The problem for the CPP is that internal differences of opinion have made it virtually impossible to agree on deadlines for retirement and generational renewal of the party’s senior leadership bodies, the Standing Committee and the Central Committee. The CPP is struggling to reinvent itself — and, in the meantime, it is giving the opposition a clear opening.

If China and Vietnam think that the CPP is giving one-party states a bad name, they are also hesitant to accept Cambodia’s evolution into a genuine multiparty democracy. China, however, might be willing to tolerate greater freedoms in Cambodia if the opposition backs China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea over Vietnam’s.

The combination of CPP inertia, newfound energy within the opposition, and a division between Cambodia’s traditional hegemons might yet produce a genuine multiparty democracy. Such an outcome is most likely only as the result of many more years of patient political development, but the Hun Sen-Sam Rainsy deal has now created a crucial precondition for this evolution by putting the opposition firmly in the game. And this is undoubtedly where the Cambodian population wants it to be.

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