Cambodia: Challenges of Democratic Consolidation

Cambodia needs to press ahead with reforms to consolidate its young democracy.

Cambodia: Challenges of Democratic Consolidation
Credit: REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The political crisis triggered by the Arab Spring in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria, the recent crisis in Ukraine, and the turmoil in Thailand could all serve as obvious examples of the unwanted consequences of drastic political change for other countries to avoid.

Cambodia for one, where the government maintains that there is no political deadlock, even though there is an ongoing boycott of the parliament by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). With a simple majority vote, the Cambodian People Party (CPP) can run the legislature on its own. Progress in political negotiations between the CPP and CNRP at the working-group level on February 18 in Phnom Penh was cheered by the public, since both parties started to soften their political stances and make concessions. The meeting decided to set up a joint commission for electoral reform, with equal representation from both parties. In addition, a national workshop on electoral reform will be organized with broader participation from all political parties, NGOs, civil society, and development partners.

However, the final outcome of the negotiations remains to be seen. The CNRP continues to boycott the National Assembly and threaten mass demonstrations in its bid to push for change. Yet, this strategy seems ineffective, since the CPP can work alone in parliament. The CNRP’s political maneuvering will only render it irrelevant in government and parliament.

Challenges still remain, as the CNRP has threatened to call off all negotiations if there is political intimidation of its public gatherings. It has also announced it will boycott the Commune Council elections in 2014. The opposition has continued to gain in popularity, which has embolden it to press an aggressive political agenda, encompassing not only new elections and comprehensive electoral reform, but also calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Will Cambodia be able to take a peaceful short-cut to liberal democracy? Chances are, of course, that the process of democratic consolidation will take longer than hoped. A peaceful transition from authoritarianism to electoral democracy in Cambodia has paved the way for speedy national rehabilitation and economic development after three decades of civil war. Despite protests by garment workers in 2013 and early this year, Cambodia still achieved impressive GDP growth of 7.5 percent for 2013, total exports of almost $10 billion, and GDP per  capita of $1036, which places it for the first time in the lower middle income range. Cambodia is also now giving back to the international community through UN-led peacekeeping operations in Africa and the Middle East, in countries such as Chad, South Sudan, Lebanon, and Mali.

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Cambodia’s relative political stability and strong economic performance cannot be ignored in either the domestic or regional contexts, especially in ASEAN. This achievement has resulted in significant international support and investor confidence. Cambodia’s image and status in the region and the world has been enhanced by its sensible foreign policy and active participation in regional and international forums, as evidenced by its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012, which culminated with U.S. President Barack Obama’s participation in the 7th East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, and the successful hosting of significant international events in 2013 such as UNESCO World Heritage Committee Meeting. Cambodian leaders and politicians have more experienced now, given several rounds of national elections since 1993, and are capable of peaceful dispute settlements. That is why members of the international community, such as the U.S., EU, Australia, Japan and South Korea, have urged all parties to return to peaceful dialogue and negotiation.

Three important factors need to be considered in the process of democratic consolidation in Cambodia.

First, Cambodian leaders must ensure that a strong foundation for democratic development is in place if Cambodia is to achieve democratic consolidation over the long-term. After almost three decades of civil war, Cambodia has been left with very little in this regard. Democracy was brought to Cambodia with the UNTAC-led election in 1993, which followed the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, as part of the resolutions to settle its internal conflicts. But the purist agrarian communist policy of the Khmer Rouge regime killed civil servants, intellectuals, teachers, students, and urbanites, and along with them the social foundations for democracy in Cambodia.

Second, democracy will not be consolidated unless Cambodia can maintain peace and stability, accompanied by economic development. This should not be read as a permanent need for developmental authoritarianism. But peace and stability in Cambodia are fragile, especially given border tensions with neighboring countries. Still today 20 percent of Cambodians live in poverty, so to sustain democracy the country needs equitable economic development and pro-poor growth with the ultimate aim of poverty eradication. When people are better-off and educated, they will tend to favor and support democracy, and reject violence as a form of dispute solution. This in turn minimizes the chances of the recurrence of civil war in Cambodia.

Third, while promoting democracy, the rule of law must be respected in order to ensure a peaceful democratic environment, social order and harmony. In a post-conflict society, the rule of law is vital for maintaining public order, peace and stability, while providing checks and balances against the abuse of power by the government. Democracy and the rule of law must work in parallel, with freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution and relevant laws.

Cambodia is relatively new to democracy, and it has yet to be consolidated. Substantial international development assistance has been provided by donor countries to help consolidate democracy and promote socioeconomic development. At least basic democratic principles are being promoted through regular senate elections, parliamentary elections and commune council elections every five years. In addition, civil society and NGOs are flourishing in Cambodia due to political openness and international support. At the same time, Cambodian youth is beginning to absorb new ideas and Western values. They do not think as their parents do.

Since Cambodia’s population is young, and social media has a growing role in spreading information, traditional media such as television and radio is no longer the most effective means of seeking support for the government. To rebuild its popularity, the ruling party should introduce real and comprehensive reform, eliminate corruption and cronyism, and promote social justice and equality with a strong political commitment. If it does not, it will not only lose popularity, but also legitimacy.

HENG Sarith is a Research Fellow at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP). The views expressed in this article are his own. Follow his blog at and twitter @HengSarith