The Fall of Cambodia’s Patron-Client Politics?

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The Fall of Cambodia’s Patron-Client Politics?

Upcoming commune elections will be a key litmus test of whether patron-client bonds are weakening.

The Fall of Cambodia’s Patron-Client Politics?
Credit: Facebook/Samdech Hun Sen

In Political Order in Changing Societies, published in 1968, the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that across much of what was then called the Third World, “the city becomes the continuing center of opposition to the political system.”

Decades on, this is certainly the case in Cambodia. Between the 1998 and 2003 general elections, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party’s share of the urban vote jumped from 27.8 percent to 47.2 percent. Much of the remaining vote went to the other major opposition party, FUNCINPEC.

Then, at the last national election in 2013, 80 of Phnom Penh’s 96 communes voted overwhelmingly for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a merger of the SRP and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party. Indeed, only 39 percent of the capital’s inhabitants voted for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Perhaps an explanation is as simple as the one put forward by Kheang Un, associate professor of political science, in the 2005 essay, “Patronage Politics and Hybrid Democracy”:

Urban voters are more sophisticated and inclined to support parties with specific policies dealing with pressing issues affecting their daily lives, such as corruption, unfair treatment of small businesses, gasoline prices, and low wages. The urban combination of pluralist voices, a sophisticated electorate, and open political space is more conducive to opposition parties in electoral contests than are rural areas.

This may well be the case, though Kheang Un likely assigns too much wisdom to urbanites and not enough to the rural masses. Nonetheless, something profound is at hand. In my own view, the answer lies in Cambodia’s patron-client system. Not dissimilar to the reign of Norodom Sihanouk, or the Angkor “god-kings” of earlier centuries, Cambodia operates a system noblesse oblige. Education, roads, and other basic services are, typically, not provided by the state but by the ruling CPP – at least this is how the government spins it. Rather than a welfare state, Cambodia has a philanthropic party. And all of this development work comes with the express condition of voting CPP when elections come around.

Time doesn’t allow for a proper explanation of how the patron-client system operates. For such detail, I would recommend Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia, or Lee Morgenbesser’s Behind the Façade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, it is enough to say that what distinguishes the cities from rural areas is that urbanites tend to, though not always, exist outside the patron-client system. The infrastructure work that goes on in the cities isn’t reliant on residents voting for the CPP, for example. The government is not going to pave a road, or build a bridge or hospital, in the cities because the majority voted for the opposition. But they would in the countryside.

As far as I am aware, there are no accurate figures of how much investment goes to Phnom Penh and other urban, or sub-urban, areas compared to rural constituencies. But it is safe to say that the majority of Cambodia’s money, including foreign investment, flows into the cities, with little trickling out. The Economist reported last year that, in Thailand, “three-quarters of all public expenditure was lavished on Bangkok and adjacent provinces, even though the capital region had only 17% of the population”. One might assume a similar figure for Cambodia.

More still, over the last decade new forms of representation, other than the patron-client, have become available for the Cambodian public, typically those in urban areas. These include trade unions – which represents and settle disputes for the country’s labor forces – and civil society actors, such as NGOs, which, to some extent, fulfill the state’s lapsed role in providing basic services to the poor and, as important, representing citizens in economic disputes. To some extent, these sever the ties between patrons and clients.

The question, then, is how far these changes are taking root away from Cambodia’s cities. Incomes are undoubtedly rising in the provinces, though often at a glacial pace compared to the capital. The ADB’s poverty report – which was, admittedly, published in 2014 – states that about 90 percent of Cambodians living below the poverty line are found in rural areas. Though, the report also noted that poverty rates in the countryside are falling, from 24.6 percent in 2009 to 20 percent in 2012, and one can assume this to be lower today, thanks to the spread of microfinance, remittances from family members living in the cities, and the economy’s general pickup.

In December, the Swedish academic Astrid Noren-Nilsson published a paper, in the Pacific Affairs journal, which suggested that handouts are losing their effect on the electorate, and opined, “the CPP should abandon this model.” Indeed, one quoted individual explained that “[Parties] give if they win the elections, but not if they don’t,” basically meaning that many Cambodians view them simply as bribes. The person continued: “If they want to give, why don’t they give certain months or years, but only before elections?”

One indicator of how the patron-client system is fading can, to some extent, be seen in how the Hun Sen government reacted following its near loss at the 2013 general election. In the popular vote, the CPP secured only 289,793 more votes than the CNRP – 3,235,969 to 2,946,176 – meaning it wasn’t just the urbanites voting CNRP. Before the election, commentator Ou Virak told me, the CPP “was so arrogant and out of the touch with the public that they ignored any calls from the public for change.” Afterwards, the party knew this couldn’t continue. So, on September 25, 2013, Hun Sen gathered his ministers at the Peace Palace and instructed them:

First, you need to use a mirror to look at yourself… Second, you have to take a bath to clean your body. Third, you have to scrub your body while bathing if it is plagued by dirty things. Fourth, you have to heal your disease.

The CPP certainly altered its course after 2013, though not on crackdowns of the opposition and civil society. It adapted to Cambodia’s young population by becoming more social media savvy, with Hun Sen as Cambodia’s new “Facebooker-in-Chief”. The number of young CPP leaders active in the party’s central committee also grew. But the sine qua non of the CPP’s 2013 alteration came in the form of legislative reforms. What the CPP realized, it seems, was that people had voted for the CNRP because it offered popular pledges, and its focus was on legislation and specific policies; the CPP, to a large extent, was only offering piecemeal development, and still reliant on handouts and donations for support.

In the years that following the 2013 election the CPP adopted almost all of the CNRP’s seven pledges it made before the last general election, a move that I termed “triangulation” in the pages of The Diplomat last year. The implication, one might assume, was that the CPP knew it could no longer win support through the purse; it had to out-compete the CNRP in terms of legislation.

A big test of how far patron-client networks have diminished will come next month as Cambodians head to the polls for the commune election, which has previously been the ruling CPP’s domain.  Though opinion polls are rare in Cambodia, there are some suggestions that the opposition CNRP could do quite well. This would certainly provide the party with optimism ahead of next year’s general election.

It is also worth noting that while the CNRP’s focus, in the past, was on urban constituents, mainly youths and the new laboring classes, this has shifted in recent months. One reason is that the urban voters are under-proportioned at general elections. Since 1998, when the capital’s population was just shy of one million, Phnom Penh only accounted for 12 of the national assembly’s 123 seats. Eighteen years on, with the population now almost double, the number of seats has not changed. In fact, since 1998 only one change has taken place in terms of seat allocation, when Preah Sihanouk province was given an additional two seats.

Earlier this year, the Future Forum think tank came up with an analysis of how the seats should be changed: Phnom Penh to have fifteen seats instead of twelve; Battambang ten not eight; Siem Reap nine instead of six. It also suggested that Kampong Cham should lose four seats, reducing it to fourteen. In simple terms, this amounted to the addition of more seats to urban areas, and less to the provinces.

The fact is that if the CNRP is to win in next year’s general election, it needs the rural vote, and a good starting point for securing these voters is at next month’s commune election. Sam Rainsy’s decision, in February, to step down as the party’s president is unlikely to change anything; he was never thought to be immensely popular among rural voters and more adept in cosmopolitan settings. However, the party’s new president, Kem Sokha, is the exact opposite. Indeed, Kem Sokha’s colloquial ways are more likely to enamor rural voters than Sam Rainsy ever could.

More important, however, is that the CNRP has made the ethos of gift-giving its main campaign target for next month’s election. By definition, the patron-client system works piecemeal. Maybe $20 or so is given to each voter before the election, or construction of a school or clinic is promised – often half of the funds will be shown upfront with the other half dependent on how the commune votes.

Instead, the CNRP has promised a monumental shakeup of commune funding. Under a CNRP government, $500,000 per year would go to each of Cambodia’s 1,633 communes – a considerable investment; almost a fifth of the state’s entire annual budget.  Presently, communes receive, on average, $57,000 per year, according to government figures, most going on administrative costs like wages. Here, the CNRP is promising the communes an alternative to the patron-client system. We will find out next month just how stable, or unstable, the patron-client bonds really are.