Cambodia’s leader just cracked down on the opposition, and the consequences will be dramatic

On Monday, Cambodia’s National Assembly passed 22 amendments to the country’s Law on Political Parties. The law was pushed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, and his Cambodian People’s Party. Although the revised law still requires a rubber stamp endorsement from the Senate, Constitution Council and King Norodom Sihamoni, its consequences are likely to be dramatic.

The revised law would allow the Supreme Court and the Interior Ministry to suspend and dissolve political parties for the ambiguous offenses of causing “incitement that would lead to national disintegration” and “subverting liberal multi-party democracy.” The target is the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

One amendment bars individuals with convictions and non-suspended prison sentences from serving as party leaders. This is especially problematic for Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile in Paris and resigned as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party last week in anticipation of the revised law, and Kem Sokha, now the acting party president. Together they have been subject to a raft of politically motivated criminal convictions, including defamation, incitement, and the procurement of prostitution. Rainsy took to Twitter to decry how “The [international] community must address the fact that they paid for a democratic system which is now lurching towards a one-party state.”

An uncomfortable truth, however, is that Cambodia has never been a democracy in any meaningful sense of the term. In his book Democracy and the Market, the political scientist Adam Przeworski famously defined democracy as a “system in which parties lose elections.” After nearly four decades in power, the very continuity of the Cambodian People’s Party violates this basic minimal standard.

So if Cambodia is not a democracy, what is it?

The amendments to the Law on Political Parties make this a particularly salient question. Once implemented, they would affirm Cambodia’s status as an authoritarian regime and could lead Cambodia to a more troubling form of authoritarianism.

Cambodia has long been a typical example of “competitive authoritarianism.” According to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, this is a political regime where the incumbent deliberately dilutes the capacity of opposition parties to win office, intentionally infringes upon civil liberties, and regularly abuses state resources to create an uneven playing field.

The dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, however, would shift Cambodia from “competitive” to “hegemonic authoritarianism.” This is a regime where the incumbent legally bars opposition parties from existing, violates basic civil liberties through the use of overt repression and monopolizes access to resources, media, and the law. By sidelining the Cambodia National Rescue Party, along with dozens of other peripheral parties, elections will become known for nothing more than manipulation, misconduct and a lack of competition.

What would this say about the role of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party? Authoritarian regimes are often distinguished by whether an individual, dominant party, military junta or royal family dominates. Until now, Cambodia has been a party-based regime, with the Cambodian People’s Party being preeminent.

In a recently published article, however, I provide new evidence that Hun Sen has usurped additional power at the expense of his own party. He has acted as a gatekeeper for political positions, appointed his relatives, created a paramilitary group, controlled the security apparatus, managed membership of the party executive, and exercised a monopoly on decision-making.

Hun Sen’s increasing power is crucial for understanding the sudden move to eliminate the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Hun Sen requested the changes to the Law on Political Parties and took aim at Rainsy during a recent parliamentary speech, saying: “I request to make a change on this [law] to make him lose all rights.” This strongly suggests that Cambodia’s Supreme Court and Interior Ministry will not read or enforce this law impartially. Instead, Cambodia’s slide deeper into authoritarianism will continue.

Lee Morgenbesser is a research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.

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