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The rise of Cambodia's illiberal democracy?

The rise of Cambodia's illiberal democracy?

Despite overcoming thirty years of fratricidal war and the external pressures of

Cold War politics, the deployment of the UN-brokered peacekeeping operation and the

subsequent national elections in 1993 and 1998 and communal elections in 2002, Cambodia

continues to bear witness to events that would alarm political scientists about the

backsliding nature of its democracy.

It would be facile to write off the problems in light of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979).

This period however continues to challenge the faith of the country as it has depleted

Cambodia of its major institutions and of its natural, human, intellectual, financial

and educational resources. To this end, the tumultuous affairs of Cambodia's stylized

politics remain a force to be reckoned with as social and economic developments hinge

on the development of the former. Needless to say, realizing liberal democracy would

remain far-fetched.

The hypothesis is that Cambodia's post-communist transitional democracy is a mask

for the evils that lurk: the perpetuation of corruption and anti-good governance,

nepotism, social injustice, impunity. Existing caveats largely sparked by political

disgruntlement, from within and without party lines, suggest the nearing of the third

reverse wave of democratic breakdown in Cambodia. But why consider a possible third

reverse wave particular to Cambodia or democracy at all?

Larry Diamond, a known quantity to the study of democracy, eloquently states "democratization

is a good thing and that democracy is the best form of government".

The theory that democracy could experience a reversion to authoritarian rule, whether

in Cambodia or elsewhere, is familiar lingo to global politics. However, democratic

declination in Cambodia could indeed create a ripple effect that would hinder regional

and perhaps international efforts to consolidate democracy in countries already in


From the rising ethnic and religious conflicts in Indonesia to the blatant disregard

of the arbitrary role of the judicial system in Croatia and Serbia to the ongoing

corruption and civil unrest in Sierra Leone and Angola to the Cubanization of Venezuela,

an unstable Cambodia could very well shake loose the foundation of peace, thus the

hopes and prospects for consolidating liberal democracies. Worse, it could marginalize

countries currently rendered some of the most repressive [e.g., China, Iraq, Iran,

Cuba, Vietnam] to replace one-party regimes with more participatory and representative

ones. Worst, it would deny Cambodians and citizens the world over of their hard-fought

and well-deserved civil and political rights.

Space constraint would limit my examination to the relationship between the rule

of law and consolidating liberal democracy. I argue that without the rule of law,

which upholds individual rights, consolidating democracy would be difficult; albeit,

these rights are at the heart of democracy. I wish to acknowledge that democracy

is only one pillar of nation-building. The age-old phenomenon nonetheless merits

recognition because it creates an environment that redirects sovereignty back into

the hands of the people.

Cambodia contributes to the 60 percent of the world's countries to have adopted democracy.

Mario Soares, former president and prime minister of Portugal, led the third wave

of democracy nearly three decades ago after successfully overthrowing the dictatorial

regime in 1974. Ironically, Cambodia bore witness to the short but inspirational

second wave of democratization [which began just after the Second World War] with

the emergence of nationalism under the leadership of Prince Sisowath Youtevong and

the introduction of liberal democracy from 1946 to 1955. Regrettably, this wave would

suffer a severe blow by Sihanouk's one-party system of 'guided democracy' eventually

evolving into authoritarianism.

Contemporary minimalist conceptions of democracy, as amply noted by Larry Diamond,

refer to the unique conditions and circumstances of each given state. Such conceptualization

helps determine the requirements of certain levels of civil freedom so as to embrace

the general imperatives of a democracy [e.g., competition, participation, freedom

(of press, speech, expression), rule of law, separation of powers, etc.] David Collier

and Steven Levitsky have also identified more than 550 'subtypes' of democracy-either

identifying specific institutional features, or defining a full democracy. To define

democracy in Cambodia therefore requires conceptual clarity.

Perhaps Cambodia's new-fangled experience would suggest using Terry Karl's 'fallacy

of electoralism,' for example. This theory applies more weight to elections rather

than the overall dimensions of democracy. He postulates that by doing so, one denies

the "significant sections of the population the opportunity to contest for power

or advance and defend their interests, or may leave significant arenas of decision-making

power beyond the reach or control of elected officials."

Ghia Nodia offers light into the debate by referring to post-communist transitional

democracies as imitations of Western models; the transit, indeed, makes them part

of Western mainstream politico-ideology [i.e., imperialism]. In this regard, the

spread of democracy "depends much more on conformity and envy than on creativity

and conviction". He suggests that "certain prerequisites regarding culture,

the economy and modernization" are gradually becoming less significant because

of this 'inorganic' growth process where there is no "gradual societal transformation

followed by a change of political regime". He also notes the important relationship

between the economics and the politics of a country, whereby a country with a stronger

economy is more likely to have a sustainable democracy. Cambodia is conceivably an

exception to the abovementioned assertion with its slowly developing economy and

ill-fated politics, but fits into the characterization given the ideological nature

of its transformation.

Insofar as rebuffing basic rights and freedoms, the question to ask is: Are post-communist

regimes, such as Cambodia's, hastily leaping into democracy so as to reap the benefits

of the elite-driven character of the West? Given the hollowed out effect, as Diamond

notes, of newly democratized countries and their unique interpretations of the political

model, post-communist democratic transitions are more likely to bifurcate into two

strands of democracy: illiberal or hybrid authoritarianism. This, indeed, is best

described by the political pundit Fareed Zakaria in his theory boldly labeling the

fourth wave of democracy illiberal. He argues "democratically elected regimes

...are routinely ignoring their constitutional limits on their power and depriving

their citizens of basic rights and freedoms". Does Cambodia's democratization

befit this assumption?

Cambodia's democratization at present is best described as an electoral democracy

that suits the stereotype of a hybrid authoritarian democracy. But, should Cambodia's

political elites continue to endorse a climate of ill-fated politics and power centralization,

Cambodia would soon meet face to face with illiberalism. This is rightfully assumed

given the presence of elections and international aid, which slightly produces party

alternation in power, and the acknowledgement [but not full implementation] of basic

civil and political freedoms. However, there is the possibility of reverting to a

full-on authoritarian-like formation creating an illiberal democracy where political

elites allow for a substantial level of restriction on the rights of citizens. The

implied definition of hybrid authoritarianism and not illiberal suggests leniency

only because of continued international aid and maybe even pressure. Perhaps the

disenfranchised nature of the FUNCINPEC party, the tenuous financial situation of

the SRP and the clever, yet repressive nature of the CPP has much to do with the

continuity of parochial politics? Nevertheless, the reverberation of political oppression

poses tremendous implications on the prospects for consolidation. The current rate

of 'politics without boundaries' would therefore suggest a rather long, windy road


The rational-legal model enforces the rule of law, without which the existence of

democracy remains a façade. Because power abhors a vacuum, Cambodia's nominal

leaders have religiously ignored the rule of law. Impunity, of course, remains a

force to be dealt with.

Irrespective of the glorious praises of Cambodia's developments, the thorn of impunity

remains at its side. The causal factor has been the dismissal of a sharp separation

of powers in which the executive and judicial branches are not independent and remains

attached to factional politics. Cambodia's Constitution, inspired by the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights, was promulgated in 1993. It states that the judiciary

shall remain an independent power "which shall uphold impartiality and protect

the rights and freedoms of the people." [Article 130 of the Constitution underpins

this divide.] Currently, the Minister of Justice is a member of the Council which

further emphasizes the deliberate violation of Constitutional provisions.

Lao Mong Hay, former Director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, posits "Cambodia's

1993 Constitution today remains little more than a proclamation of intentions"

so as to underline the practical nonexistence of a separation of powers among the

National Assembly, the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Judiciary. According

to Lao, the National Assembly has the obligation and the duty to represent the voices

of its constituents. In practice however Members of Parliament elastically curve

to the contours of the executive power.

The longstanding tradition of having the executive authority override the independence

of the judiciary remains at the helm. Historical representations of Cambodia's judicial

system are also contending factors for onward impunity. That is, the French judicial

system and the Vietnamese-inspired system were incorporated into Cambodia's practices

prior to the implementation of the "Provisions relating to the Judiciary and

Criminal Law and Procedure Applicable in Cambodia during the Transitional Period"-more

commonly known as the UNTAC Penal Code. The hitherto, ubiquitous extrajudicial processes

are driven by the Vietnamese judicial model in which "people are often convicted

on the basis of confessions obtained under duress, without corroborating evidence".

The dearth of intellectual and financial resources further exacerbates the problem.

In addition, the 2000 Amnesty International report indicates "Cambodia's judicial

system is weak [in which] both the civil and military courts are subject to political

pressure and allegations of corruption in criminal cases are commonplace". It

denotes the "[Cambodian] judicial system is subject to arbitrary and unconstitutional

direct interference by the executive branch of the government, undermining human

rights protection and preventing the independent administration of justice".

The arbitrariness of the judicial branch serves as the bulwark of basic civil and

political freedoms and socio-economic equality.

Sandra Coliver indicates that "an effective judiciary plays a key institutional

role in the balance of powers necessary for a genuine democracy...and...the absence

of an effective legal system fosters violence, crime and corruption". Civil

disobedience and corruption, among others, are unsurprisingly widespread in Cambodia.

Cambodian politicians have come to acknowledge the application of the rule of law,

but have not necessarily become subordinate to it. Similar to other Asian countries,

Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, the rule of law has been steadily replaced by the rule

by law.

The most challenging task is to decentralize power from the few and to have the rule

of law become the sine qua non of every action and reaction. From civil-society to

the executive branch, the rule of law should be met with openness and malleability

so that rule of law reforms can be made. By spearheading these principles, all central

institutions of justice, police, prosecutors and judges, must be at the beck and

call of impartiality. Most importantly, a sharp divide between the executive, judicial,

and even legislative branch must be in place.

But given the negligence of the rule of law where politicians flex their muscles

and rule by the law, Cambodia's democratization will witness the rise of an illiberal

democracy where basic liberties and the rule of law are constantly challenged by

impunity and corruption. I have argued that democracy is currently in the hybrid

authoritarian state where power is centered.

Nevertheless, these great features of democracy [i.e., good governance and anti-corruption,

respect for human rights, political pluralism] are brought back into mainstream society

when international observers are physically and financially engulfed. Power-wielding

mechanisms of authori-tarianism however simmer as a lethal weapon to all forms of

development. Disguising such behaviors under democracy to please financiers more

accurately assumes that the country is headed in the right direction.

More befuddling is the complacency and apathy witnessed in the attitudes of the international

community. By my own accounts, I've noticed that most expatriates realize the perpetuation

of illegitimacy and anti-good governance but choose the easier, perhaps less destructive

route of turning a blind eye. But why? Is it because policy-makers anxiously leap

into situations where the perfect social, political, economic and cultural [and even

financial] conditions are present but neglect to realize the truth? Or, is it because

when democracy is challenged by the uncanny methods resembling authoritarian rule,

the international community either explicitly or implicitly ignores the aforementioned

as they fear for the return of instability? Or, is it a simple case of apathy-and

to an extent, selfishness?

Of course, "where there is potential for significant change, assistance should

be ventured even where the likelihood of that change is low," or perhaps the

so-called 'democratic alchemy' would replace political models and systems once repressive

of basic liberties. But Diamond champions the aforesaid assertions by indicating

that the worst thing and most dangerous [intellectual] temptation is teleology: to

think that the world is necessarily moving toward some democratic end state. He goes

on to say that "too many policy makers have taken [electoral] democracy as an

end state in itself [and that] many citizens blithely take the current state as their

own established democracies as an end point of political evolution [which is] the

best democracy can do...even though it leaves them cynical and detached...and...some

observers seem to assume that democratic consolidation is bound to follow transition

in much of the world." All of which are presumptuous and counterproductive and

could very well do more harm than good for Cambodia and elsewhere.

Because of her fledgling nature, one of three, or all, things could arise: 1) Cambodia's

democratization would fall into the third reverse wave of democratic breakdown where

illiberalism would diffuse; 2) Cambodians would become more cynical and detached;

or 3) the government uses the weak state of democracy to their advantage. All three

trends seem to either be within earshot or in progress. Nonetheless, the other 99.9

percent of the population would ultimately lose unless rule of law reforms are made.

This, I argue, would guarantee justice, peace and of course democracy. Change however

is only good if those who hold the power to change welcome it. Though a confessed

idiosyncratic harbinger, I hope my pessimism serves as a foundation for caution.

ó Peter Keo is former Assistant Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation

and Peace, Phnom Penh.


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