Cambodia: Getting Away with Authoritarianism?
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Cambodia:
Getting Away with Authoritarianism?

What if a country holds an election but it proves not to matter? Cambodians voted nationwide in July 2003, only to see their polity's three main political parties take almost a year to form a new administration. The long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen won 47.4 percent of the popular vote but gained 59.3 percent of the seats in the National Assembly thanks to Cambodia's unusual "highest-average" system of proportional voting, which favors large parties.1 The CPP's two main rivals, the nominally royalist formation known by its French acronym of FUNCINPEC and the populist opposition Sam Rainsy Party (or SRP, named for its founder and leading personality) each won around about a fifth of the total vote and a similar share of seats in the 123-member National Assembly (the actual seat totals were 73 for the CPP, 26 for FUNCINPEC, and 24 for the SRP).

Since Cambodia's 1993 constitution stipulates that a two-thirds parliamentary majority is needed to form a government, the parties had to bargain in the election's wake. Bargain they did, for 11 long months. All during this time Cambodia had no properly constituted government, but little changed. Power remained firmly in the hands of the CPP, which has ruled since the 1980s, initially under Vietnamese tutelage. It has such a tight grip that elections have become little more than a sideshow, helping to bolster the electoral-authoritarian regime that Hun Sen has built.

In 1993, general elections overseen by the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) helped to create the conditions for an end to the violence that had killed millions over the preceding [End Page 98] decades. A coalition government brought together most leading figures, and it seemed as if the basis for lasting peace and political pluralism was in place. More than a decade later, the picture looks much grimmer. Hun Sen's CPP—which lost the 1993 elections and was supposedly the junior partner in the government that followed—has completely eclipsed FUNCINPEC, created by King Norodom Sihanouk and led by his son Prince Ranarridh. The CPP is a tightly organized party with formidable grassroots networks and a primary appeal to the rural masses. While Hun Sen plainly dominates the CPP, an important faction is loyal to nominal party leader Chea Sim. FUNCINPEC has a more ad hoc structure, and has long been forced to play a subordinate role to the CPP. FUNCINPEC's supporters include rural dwellers and much of the educated urban elite. Both parties are now effectively postideological; the pursuit of wealth and power forms the main concern of each. Rainsy is the only significant opposition figure and as such has faced sustained harassment from both the CPP and FUNCINPEC. Where is Cambodia heading?

The early 1990s saw UNTAC winning general plaudits for its role in the 1993 Cambodian election and its aftermath. Very few people lost their lives, which was no small feat given Cambodia's bloody recent history. FUNCINPEC's victory in the polling was a surprise. The CPP, which had been running Cambodia for 14 years, was generally considered unbeatable because of its tight grip on village-level political structures. Although the CPP objected at first, all sides eventually accepted the results and a new government formed fairly quickly. If we believe that the smoother the transition, the better the chances for change in the direction of liberal democracy, then Cambodia's post-1993 transition seemed a promising example.

But did UNTAC preside over an actual transition? Despite his notionally subordinate status as second prime minister after 1993, Hun Sen kept de facto control over Cambodia. Many observers focused on the residual presence of cadres from the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979, and failed to see that the real struggle lay between the CPP and its electoral rivals.2 The UNTAC interlude of 1992 and 1993 did bolster the peace process, but politically it was only a passing outside intervention that left the CPP's grip on power unchanged. The supposed smoothness of the transition was undermined by...