The Debate

Democracy in Cambodia Is Working

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The Debate

Democracy in Cambodia Is Working

The country has avoided a return to conflict and is moving ahead with reforms.

Democracy in Cambodia Is Working
Credit: Bart Geesink

For the last two decades and more, Cambodia’s political landscape has been characterized by a love-hate relationship between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and opposition political parties. Recent political developments, which saw a degree of harmony emerge between the CPP and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the product of a merger back in 2012 and now the main opposition party, have since culminated in a return to that same kind of relationship, with the parties being divergent rather than convergent. Recent legal lawsuits launched against individuals from the CNRP have sparked rifts and rivalries between the CPP and CNRP, leading CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, to go into self-exile. The recent sex scandal surrounding Kem Sokha, Vice-President of the CNRP, the arrests of several ADHOC staff and that of a National Election Committee (NEC) Deputy Secretary General on charges of conspiracy, an act contrary to the principle of NGO neutrality in the political sphere, have also sparked some contentious views regarding the current political climate. Some see the recent political climate as moving towards stalemate, while the ruling CPP views the situation as quiescent and moving towards improvement in all sectors.

This article considers the broader theoretical contention – namely, that despite the political tension between the two major political parties (CPP vs CNRP), the current political landscape is conducive towards a normal working-democracy or what Ojendal and Ou (October 2013) refer to as a transition from “friction” towards a “hybrid political system.” According to Skocpol (1985), states, which are conceptualized as “autonomous” organizations claiming control over territories and people, may formulate and pursue goals that primarily reflect the demands or interests of major social groups, classes or society. Pursuing such goals, states have a “capacity” to implement decisions through administrative, legal, extractive and coercive means. In this sense, endowed with the responsibility to manage and impose public order for its own people, the legitimate government is working to enforce the rule of law as a responsible and accountable state entity. This is a normal state affairs, especially between the state and civil society. At its root, this text argues that democracy is working in Cambodia. Current developments do not represent a heating up of the political climate. It is normal for a state to enforce its legitimate goals in striving towards the principle of working-democracy. Highlighted below are social, political and economic factors illustrating this state of why this is the case.

Historical Factors

From 1970-1993, regime change often involved deadly power struggles with several ideologically divergent regimes being toppled. The signing of the Paris Peace Agreements (PPA) on October 23, 1991 provided for a comprehensive political settlement to end Cambodia’s protracted civil war. As a result, the Constitutional Monarchy was re-established. However, fighting between the elected government and Khmer Rouge soldiers along the Cambodia-Thailand border persisted until the late 1990s. Only after the CPP’s initiatives and platforms, most notably the prime minister’s “win-win strategy” to bring together all the fighting parties and dismantle the remaining Khmer Rouge apparatus and strongholds, were decades worth of conflict finally brought to an end. More importantly, soldiers from different warring factions were also demobilized and integrated into the national armed forces, defending the country and its people. Since then, the country and its people have enjoyed political stability and total peace, leading to major a transformation of Cambodia’s foreign policy and global leadership, and in making leaps towards becoming a tiger economy in Asia. The country has promoted its role on the regional and international stage in such areas as economic integration, as well as setting up a criminal court, namely the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, to prosecute the former and most senior Khmer Rouge leaders. The country’s development is moving forward, freedom of speech, civil society, human rights, and electoral democracy are being enforced.

Positive Achievements

It is also important to highlight some major achievements. Cambodia has been working very hard to strengthen democracy and develop a functioning market economy. Social order and political stability have been maintained and history has not repeated itself since 1998. It is recognized that peace and political stability are real assets for Cambodians and the best way to promote the rule of law. Since 1993, democracy has been greatly improved in Cambodia, thanks in no small part to the commitment and efforts of the government in adhering to the constitution and international institutions and norms. Democratic education has been improved via local and national elections. Elections have been held regularly and many political parties engage in a free and fair competition. Millions of voters go the election booth with thousands of international observers from around the world taking part. Opposition parties can conduct their political activities without discrimination, intimidation or repression. The fact that opposition parties continue to enjoy higher popular support is a clear example that the government truly believes in free and fair elections as a means to obtain government office. Compared to the election of 1993, political conflict in Cambodia is almost free of fatal violence. This is evidence that democratic leadership has matured.

Starting from 2002, grassroots democratization has also been given priority through decentralization reforms, allowing local people to elect their representatives directly through a multiparty electoral system. The institutions of electoral democracy have been reinvented both at the national and local levels following prolonged civil war. Moreover, civil society is also growing and vibrant, and is involved in a range of social, political, economic and cultural development. Freedom of the press and of expression are also strong in Cambodia. Many people voice their opinions, sometimes critical of the CPP, on social media, but the CPP does not only refrain from action to stop them, but in fact encourages them to make use of this new medium to provide input to the government so that it can respond more effectively to people’s demands.

Cambodia has been able to develop major physical infrastructure leading to steady macroeconomic growth at an average of 7-8 percent per annum. The driving force behind economic growth can be traced to many factors, including political and economic stability, openness to free trade, as well as regional and international integration alongside international development aid. The government’s launching of a stock exchange in partnership with South Korea continues to draw attention from investors. Additionally, prospects for oil and gas exploitation have generated interest from major countries for investment opportunities. The potential value of oil reserves predicted to be upwards of US$1.7 billion per year after 2021, equal to three times the amount of current international development aid. In turn, this economic growth contributes to reducing the poverty rate. With this steady growth, Cambodia has managed to reduce the poverty rate from 50 percent in 1993 to 13 percent in 2014, a move contributing to the country’s success in attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which international bodies recognize as a good sign in developing countries. There is a general acknowledgement that the speed of revitalization of political and economic institutions is slow, though it does seem to be moving in the right direction.

Together with joint international efforts to rebuild Cambodia after decades of civil conflict, Cambodia has managed to advance its reforms towards peace and prosperity by its own will and resources, not falling back to civil war or renewed conflict. Cambodia is perhaps a success story in the history of UN-led interventions and post-conflict nation building. According to the literature, war has resumed in 44 percent of all post-conflict situations in the first five years after violence has stopped, while approximately 50 percent of post conflict countries revert to war in the first decade of peace. Since 1998, Cambodia has been peaceful and has moved forwards. Institution building for both public and private sectors have been encouraged and executed. Service delivery from the state is improving, an ongoing success story confirmed in the literature. Given Cambodia’s long history as a post-conflict country, it has not only worked with the international community to build peace within its own border, but it has also been actively involved in peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-promoting efforts around the world.


Though there are noticeable attempts to accelerate reforms towards institutionalizing democracy and democratic institutions, such reforms have been seen as slow or constrained by various factors, placing limitations on the capacity of state institutions to deliver services. Some literature points to a lingering and widening wealth disparity (the “haves” and “have-nots”), while the middle class continues to grow. At the same time, there has been interference from outside the country that sought to encourage a (black) color revolution. The current government has been working hard to improve the situation and challenge the status quo through different reform programs.

All the above aspects have illustrated that post-conflict reconstruction in Cambodia is progressing well and that democracy is on the move. The existing political climate is not abnormal, but a normal state of affairs for a pluralist democracy like Cambodia. The Royal Government led by the CPP is carrying out its responsibilities as a state to maintain peace and social order, which other governments always do, and to ensure that the rule of law is effectively implemented.

Suos Yara is a Member of Parliament in Cambodia.