Patronage Still Protects CPP, Scholars Say

Cambodia will not have democratic change so long as the CPP’s patronage networks, which link spending in poor rural villages to electoral support for the ruling party, remain intact, concludes a new research paper by Australian and American academics.

Any “disruption” of the patronage networks, like those that preceded democratization in the Philippines in the 1980s and Indonesia in the 1990s, is also unlikely so long as China continues to pour money into the CPP’s coffers, one of the academics said.

National Assembly President Heng Samrin, left, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, along with their wives, release doves at the CPP's headquarters in Phnom Penh in January during a ceremony to mark 37 years since the overthrow of Pol Pot. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
National Assembly President Heng Samrin, left, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, along with their wives, release doves at the CPP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh in January during a ceremony to mark 37 years since the overthrow of Pol Pot. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Authored by Lee Morgenbesser of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and Thomas Pepinsky of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the paper notes that present academic theory holds that even “flawed” elections—if held regularly—should help democratize authoritarian regimes.

Past research, it notes, has found “a robust causal relationship between repeated multi-party elections in authoritarian regimes and democratization,” with elections increasing the cost of repression for a regime and reducing the cost of toleration over time.

Mr. Morgenbesser and Mr. Pepinsky note the theory has not held in Cambodia, where repeated elections involving actual opposition parties in 1993, 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013 have done little to dent Prime Minister Hun Sen’s iron grip on the nation.

“Despite representing a most-likely case for democratization by elections, Cambodia has failed to move towards democracy in any tangible way,” they write, despite Mr. Hun Sen’s regime being one that has “no clear purpose beyond its own perpetuation.”

The pressures that would push an authoritarian regime slowly toward true democracy—like expanding democratic expectations, increasing the professionalism of opponents, or drawing international attention—are blunted by reliable levels of electoral support that patron-client networks provide the CPP.

“Today, Hun Sen and the CPP sit atop a sprawling system of domination that combines informal personal relationships of loyalty and dependence with formal state institutions,” the paper says.

In this system, the CPP cultivates dependence by distributing “development projects, material goods and specialized services to citizens in exchange for votes,” with villagers gaining such projects from local leaders, who are reliant on those above them, and so on.

“Not only do affective bonds of personal loyalty lower the costs…of multi-party electoral competition, but they give a large cross-section of citizens, business tycoons, military officials and political elites a stake in the maintenance of authoritarian rule,” the paper says.

In a separate paper in a forthcoming issue of Contemporary Politics, Mr. Morgenbesser expounds on this, explaining that the necessity for villagers to vote for the CPP to receive basic services constrains their choices. 

“The distribution of patronage represents a powerful disincentive for many ordinary Cambodians to use elections as an arena to advance democracy,” Mr. Morgenbesser writes, adding that many of the poor end up afraid of being cut off from state services.

“Despite survey results showing an underlying desire for regime change, the actual fulfillment of democratic ideals and expectations is juxtaposed to the fact that receiving patronage requires a demonstration of loyalty to the party-state,” he writes.

In fact, Mr. Morgenbesser and Mr. Pepinsky’s paper argues, slow democratization through elections has been uncommon in Southeast Asia, where 84 multiparty ballots since 1945 have led to democratic transitions only in “the Philippines (1986), Indonesia (1999) and Thailand (on four separate occasions).”

Reserving judgment on Burma’s 2015 election due to the continued role of the army, they say the normal pressures of repeated elections only made a difference “when weak or weakening states proved unable to continue neopatrimonial strategies of rule.”

For Indonesia in the 1990s, the authors write, the shifts in loyalties of key military and government officials loyal to President Suharto only came after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis destroyed his ability to finance the patron-client networks upon which he had relied.

Power slipped away from President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s Philippines, the authors say, due to falling foreign revenues from trade and U.S. pressure, which likewise left the regime unable to keep patronage funds flowing.

“Our argument implies that were Cambodia to experience such a disruption in the mechanisms of patronage, elections would for the first time threaten the CPP,” write Mr. Morgenbesser and Mr. Pepinsky.

Mr. Morgenbesser argues in his other paper that without such patronage networks during the disputed 2013 election, which the CNRP claims was marred by irregularities, Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP likely would not have managed to hold onto power.

Hun Many, center, the youngest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and a first-time CPP candidate for the National Assembly, leads a rally of about 10,000 CPP youth supporters through Phnom Penh in 2013. (Siv Channa)

However, the academic said in an email that he doubted the CPP’s patronage networks would be “disrupted” anytime soon, explaining that those in Indonesia and the Philippines were thrown into disarray only because they were based on shaky financial sources.

“The structure of the patronage networks determines its vulnerability to disruption. If the network mainly skims money off the top of foreign aid and foreign direct investment, it is susceptible to events such as the Asian Financial Crisis,” Mr. Morgenbesser said.

“These ‘public’ sources of revenue can quickly dry up and cripple the distribution of patronage,” he said. “In the case of Cambodia, China would basically need to withdraw its financial support for the CPP.”

Last month, China promised more than half a billion dollars to Mr. Hun Sen’s government from now until 2018—the year of the next national election. Besides this, Mr. Morgenbesser said the CPP also benefitted from patronage delivered by CPP-aligned businesspeople.

The building of roads, schools, pagodas and wells around election time by such businessmen—and the unspoken threat of losing such benefits if an area does not vote for the CPP—also contributed to patronage constraining the options of many voters.

“In the case of Cambodia, a significant majority of those individuals who makeup the ‘oknha’ community that surrounds the CPP—and Hun Sen in particular—would need to withdraw their financial support,” he said. “This is an equally unlikely event.”

However, Sam Inn, spokesman for the Grassroots Democracy Party, which was created last year as a bottom-up opposition party seeking support in rural areas, said his interactions with villagers suggested they were becoming less susceptible to the pressure of patronage politics.

Most people, he said, seemed aware of what was going on when CPP figures delivered largesse around elections—and most now told him they were ready to vote for the opposition CNRP in the coming 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election.

“The strategy of the CPP with this patronage-client system is an issue of the past. They were successful in the past when people were not well aware of their rights and were living in fear,” Mr. Inn said.

“Through our interactions with people now, they have awakened. They don’t like that kind of system anymore. They see that they just give small gifts, but take their land, take their forests and take their fisheries, which has caused many negative impacts,” he added.

“They know who is responsible for this.”

For his part, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said it was wrong to characterize the CPP’s patronage as a problem for democracy, and said it seemed Mr. Morgenbesser and Mr. Pepinsky did “not understand the culture of Cambodia.”

“If you were living in a village, who would you trust? Who would you count on? There’s only the CPP. They are strong, and they have the mechanisms to do things, and not just to talk,” Mr. Siphan said.

He added that the ability to undertake infrastructure projects, such as building bridges, had nothing to do with the CPP’s being in government, but was simply the result of the generosity of many rich businesspeople in the party.

“They have rich CNRP people too,” Mr. Siphan said. “Let’s say a toilet costs $500. They could afford to do that. But they don’t do it. We do. That’s why CPP supporters are confident in the CPP.”

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