The question on everyone's mind since the communal elections in Cambodia is, naturally, what's going to happen in the national elections next year? Breaking down the trend lines and the numbers out in the provinces is a project for another day - and the numbers ARE interesting. Today, we want to examine the hypothetical question: what are the potential outcomes in the event of a loss, on the day, by the ruling party?
There are many ways to interpret politics. The most popular in Cambodia these days seems to be a sort of updated but less precise form of what we used to call "Kremlinology." This approach to elite politics - now widely seen by political scientists as a disciplinary embarrassment - was heavily discredited in that it predicted "business as usual" when the Soviet Union was in the initial stages of collapse. Not a great track record. It generally entailed a lot of what we would normally term "gossip:" who was standing next to whom at what parade, who said what about another leading figure in the party at a public event, who is out of the country for a medical procedure etc. Yawn.
From an analytical perspective, this sort of data is for the most part - to be charitable - useless (although it does provide splendid fodder for dinner party conversations and an ego boost for those who like to act as though they are "in the know" as regards what's going on among the elites in Phnom Penh). There are some social scientists out there doing excellent work in elite politics - the research of Joseph Fewsmith, Alice Lyman Miller, and Ken Lieberthal on contemporary China all immediately spring to mind - but these are few and far between. I can't count the number of "The Coming Collapse of X" articles/books I have trudged through during my academic career only to find X is still there and doing quite well thank you very much.
Finally, it must be said that Cambodian politics are quite opaque. Not nearly as opaque as in other states though, I recall sitting at a panel on the politics of Uzbekistan a couple of years back in Washington, D.C. where the chair simply threw out the agenda and asked: "Okay, open floor, what do we actually know is going on in Tashkent?" The initial silence was deafening. Weakness in terms of data provides an opening for the only real alternative to Kremlinology/Gossip, application of theory - and what is theory after all, but an attempt to simplify. To utilize valid and replicable research conclusions developed into a coherent research program in order to predict future outcomes.
Here at GMRC, we deeply appreciate but don't do journalism (we're social scientists and lawyers and stick to our own professions) - rather, we seek to apply contemporary political economic theory to regional politics and economics in order to get a better understanding of the short to medium term outcomes in Cambodia, Lao, and Vietnam. Also, as an organization we are absolutely apolitical - we do not seek to intervene in the societies or politics that we study beyond educational and training programs in areas such as law, political economy, research methodology, public policy, and economics. With that absurdly long introduction/disclaimer - let's get back to the topic at hand: after the 2018 elections, what are the options?
In yesterday's blog post we discussed (and predicted) the likelihood of the gradual development of what Levitzky and Way have termed "a competitive authoritarian state." So, let's flesh out the dynamics of that argument, looking particularly at the structural conditions and the costs (in political economy, we love to discuss costs) of such a regime in comparison to say the sort of "pure" authoritarianism that one observes in China, the authoritarian state par excellence. Say what you will about China, but it's mode of governance is impressive: the rebuilding of its cadre and cadre management system, the incentivization of its officials, its regular movement of cadres to different provinces to avoid the creation of local power bases, and its reasonably institutionalized approach to the transition of the power - the period when most authoritarian regimes collapse (we are on the 5th generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders, that's impressive). The corruption issue aside, it's tough to argue with the result of the so-called "Beijing Consensus" and the governance structure that underpins it (more people moving out of poverty at a faster rate that at any other time in the history of the world).
Let's assume for the moment (just an assumption) that the CPP loses the next election - despite the massive growth in the economy and the measurable improvements in quality of life for a large segment of the population. Lots of people are arguing - well, they'll just ignore ignore the results and go "full authoritarian." The problem with that position is that authoritarianism is very, very expensive. Investment is stifled. The sheer cost of maintaining internal security eventually becomes prohibitive. In the words of a former Stasi chief to a former East German head of state: "We can't beat (physically) everybody." It is precisely these costs, more set out below, that make the establishment of an authoritarian state in Cambodia highly unlikely and a competitive authoritarian model more probable. If one was looking for a comparative case, the ideal is, of course, contemporary Russia - the model of a competitive authoritarian state where the Kremlin has (wisely, recognizing its own self-interest) figured out that the costs that come with allowing limited sites of open political contestation are significantly cheaper for elites than declaring a one party state under the leadership of President Putin, the United Russia Party, and the "siloviki" (the representatives of the so-called power ministries).
First, there is the traditional option of electoral fraud - and very often (again: see Russia), ballot stuffing is a tried and true technique to avoid the decision point where a regime formally decides to abrogate its democratic system of government. But it's also a highly risky maneuver, with outcomes generally dependent on the state of civil society and the egregiousness of the aforementioned "stuffing." As Levitzky and Way note in their seminal piece on the topic, ballot stuffing led to mass protests in Peru and Serbia in 2000, Mexico in 1988, and Armenia in 1996. There are no guarantees there and it can serve as a focal point for organization by opposition parties/civil society. Also, such actions can be a tipping point in societies where the population has relatively low trust in the state, and ultimately undermine regimes. However, continued fragmentation among the opposition in Cambodia and the positive economic situation (never under-estimate the good old "voting your wallet" heuristic) at present would seem to necessitate fraud at a rather massively obvious level in order for those sorts of regime-changing protests to take place. Probably not on the cards - the numbers in the commune elections did not depict any sort of "wave" towards the opposition - and therefore "low to moderate stuffing" is unlikely to lead to the chain of events that would result in full-blown authoritarianism. But for competitive authoritarianism - so far, so likely.
Second, there is the international aspect - and we have some competing variables there. On the one hand, in the 1990s, international pressure was a highly useful tool to "nudge" would be autocrats in the direction of unconsolidated democracy. Sanctions, the cutting off of aid, and the other panoply of items in that toolbox were either actively applied or their application was openly or quietly implied. Haiti's history since the flight of Baby Doc Duvalier is an excellent model as to how this can be accomplished. However, international pressure is not an insurance policy for the maintenance of a weak, unconsolidated regime. It's worth quoting Levitzky and Way in full here as they summarize the realities perfectly:
"Linkages to the West—in the form of cultural and media influence, elite networks, demonstration effects, and direct pressure from Western governments—appear to have raised the costs of authoritarian entrenchment, making the democratization of competitive authoritarian regimes more likely. Where Western linkages were weaker, or where alternative, nondemocratic hegemons (such as Russia or China) exerted substantial influence, competitive authoritarian regimes were more likely either to persist or to move in a more authoritarian direction."
And now we come to the center of the shrubbery maze. If we examine the influence of western democracies in Cambodia in recent years, it's on the wane. As I noted in an earlier post, the future is simple. The future is China. I'm not willing to go so far as others who have compared Cambodia to Mongolia during the Cold War - the state was popularly known as "the USSR's 16th Republic," a wholly owned subsidiarity of Moscow. Nevertheless, in terms of aid, investment, military and diplomatic cooperation, Phnom Penh has chosen its path - and it not in the direction of the west, significantly undermining the utility of any of the "sticks" that Western states could apply. Moreover, as the contemporary research on Chinese foreign policy indicates, Beijing is very much in favor of avoiding the sort of global, liberal democratic consensus that could both isolate it and foment new problems back home. Guarantees in the form of continued or increased aid/investment would most likely be forthcoming - particularly in light of Cambodia's role as China's de facto representative at ASEAN. As for ASEAN itself, looking around the region these days, it's unlikely to see that institution, which is still relatively weak, take a bold stand for liberal democracy (anyone really expect Singapore or Thailand to lead that charge?)
Moreover, a messy and bloody shift to a full authoritarian regime would have a short/medium term hit to the country's enormous tourism industry. Together with the possibility of limits on exports (particularly from garment firms which increasingly love to trot out their social responsibility) what this creates is a constituency for the status quo (unconsolidated democracy) or for a form of relatively benign continuity (competitive authoritarianism). The costs to the business sector and many segments of the elite would simply be much too high, and in a patron-client system of government, if you can't keep the cash flowing to your supporters - you are dead in the water.
So, that's where we see things at present. Now, one year is a very long time in politics and while we adore theory and theory-based prediction, we would love to see more data on other actors/variables. And we just don't have it yet. We need to know much more about the possibilities of elite fragmentation. We need a clearer picture as to the role of the military - both as an institution with its own interests as well as its relationship with/integration to the CPP. We need to see how the CPP will develop in the coming months: a tighter ship making greater use of the Chinese model would be the smart move here. Will Chinese capital controls undermine GDP growth in Cambodia? And so on and so forth.
As Levitzky and Way note in their work and as we conclude - competitive authoritarianism is likely simply because the variables are not extant at this time for either the consolidation of a liberal democratic regime or the establishment of an authoritarian state. In other words, as we noted yesterday: thing will tighten up, competitive authoritarianism is the horse to bet on, but essentially more of the same is on the cards.