Patronage Politics

The following excerpt is from the book “Beyond the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia” by Lee Morgenbesser. The book, its publisher notes, “examines the question of why authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia bother holding elections,” using the examples of Cambodia, Burma and Singapore. “Far from being mere window dressing or even a precursor to democracy, flawed elections, Morgenbesser concludes, are paramount to the maintenance of authoritarian rule.”

The existence of elections in Cambodia manifests an appeal to two intertwined traditions. The first is the idea of the meritorious benefactor (saboraschon), which emerged following the introduction of Buddhism more than a millennium ago. It refers to an “individual who earns personal merit through the making of generous contributions to communal projects such as the construction or repair of temple buildings.”¹

The second is the practice of patron-clientelism, which is a form of organization embedded within neopatrimonial domination. It involves the exchange of development projects, material goods and specialized services for support. During elections, it is argued, the CPP couches the distribution of state patronage in the former tradition, while simultaneously exploiting the sanctity of reciprocal obligation contained within a broader application of the latter. This is because the exchange process involves a repressive element of some kind, including the threat of less or no patronage in the future.²

Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with local residents during a visit to Banteay Meanchey province on Thursday, in photographs posted to his Facebook page.
Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with local residents during a visit to Banteay Meanchey province on Thursday, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page.

Rather than acting as a meritorious benefactor, then, the party-state uses the inherent asymmetry of the patron-client relationship to co-opt citizens into providing support. Against this backdrop, Hun Sen has by far the most important role to play in renewing and reinforcing neopatrimonial domination via elections.

In a public setting, his primary responsibility is to travel around Cambodia lauding various development projects and dispensing material goods. Many of these events are timed to take place immediately before the election so that, should citizens fail to support the party-state, the construction projects can be quickly abandoned or curtailed. Reflecting on his conduct during elections, Sebastian Strangio³ observes how

The whole exercise—from god-like helicopter descent to the distribution of gifts—drew heavily on Sihanouk’s modus operandi. The main difference was that Sihanouk had inspired genuine devotion in his “children.” Hun Sen’s visits were more staged. And they were always accompanied by a hint of menace.

This was evident in the 1998 election, when Hun Sen personally donated half the funds for the construction of a new skills training center in Meanchey district. In response to being asked why he had not donated the full amount, he replied that “If he wins the elections he will pay again for the other half of the cost of the building construction. If he loses the elections, the building will stay half-completed forever.”4,5 This shows how elections serve to preserve the existing mode of domination by compelling citizens into local competition for state patronage.

At the conclusion of each event, Hun Sen also offers a wide array of development projects and material goods to citizens. A catalog of a typical week from the 2003 election campaign included $39,900 in funding for new pagodas and mosques, $5,400 for a school excursion, $4,200 for flood protection, $3,000 for a new “religious hanger,” $1,500 for a primary school, 170 tons of rice, 24 school buildings containing 181 classrooms, 15 tons of cement, 12 sets of computers, 11 generators, eight printers and photocopiers, three sewing class buildings with 100 machines, two televisions, two videocassette recorders, and one bridge.6

Such patronage underscores the highly personalized nature of Cambodian elections, whereby Hun Sen constantly promotes himself as a meritorious benefactor, above the fray of messy campaign politics.

“If I campaign,” he once declared, “it would look no different from a football player who also blows the whistle. And it would not look good even if I win.”7

This was further evident in the 2013 election, where he took a vow of silence for the entire campaign period. In this instance, Kheang Un,8 an expert on Cambodian politics, cited in an interview how Hun Sen did this because he does not see himself as an equal player within the political system.

Mr. Hun Sen meets with local residents during a visit to Banteay Meanchey province on Thursday, in photographs posted to his Facebook page.
Mr. Hun Sen meets with local residents during a visit to Banteay Meanchey province on Thursday, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page.

Instead, he wished to “portray himself as on par with the royalty, as a king.” The existence of this belief is indicative of the fact that his power is based less on the need to gain popular legitimacy and more on maintaining his position atop a patron-client pyramid embedded within the neopatrimonial state.

This helps explain why Hun Sen during elections also leads the CPP’s Party Working Group (PWG), a rather secretive organization created after the 1993 election and gradually instituationalized across the country. As the key link to the oknha community, he uses his position atop Cambodia’s patron-client pyramid to gain off-budget funding for the distribution of state patronage throughout the country. Since these exchanges occur in private, ascertaining which business elite has funded a particular development project is often very difficult.

There are occasions, however, when Hun Sen will be accompanied around Cambodia by one or more oknha, so that they can be delegated responsibility to fund or construct the relevant piece of infrastructure. During a campaign stop in the most recent election, for instance, Hun Sen9 thanked a local politician, Hoeu Pavi, for “representing me [since at least 1997] in bringing donation and contribution to the pagoda for the construction.”

Another way to identify the network of elite financiers behind state patronage is to examine the makeup of the central government. Kimchoeun Pak10 highlights the case of an opportunistic entrepreneur who saw the importance of having a position in government to help his business. Upon gaining entry as an “adviser,” he was delegated the responsibility of coordinating the PWG in his own district. In this position, it was estimated he distributed $150,000 in largesse to citizens during the 2008 election alone.

Aside from such obvious indicators, the anecdotal evidence indicates that the main financiers for any given development project usually sit behind Hun Sen during each ceremony held to celebrate it.

Besides Hun Sen, political elites assist with the distribution of state patronage during elections. Using their own clusters, all of which exist inside the overarching patron-client pyramid, they source additional funding for the distribution of projects, goods, and services through the PWG. Accordingly,

Holding a senior position within the state apparatus has been one of the major avenues of private capital accumulation, with senior government officials actively seeking to advance their individual and network’s interests through the powers they exercise in the holding on government office.11,12

This means the pyramid is both partially interlocking, in that separate clusters can act in a unified way, and partially competitive, in that different factions jostle for perks. During elections, the former dynamic generally prevails so that the party-state can survive.

Acting in concert with Hun Sen, political elites usually attend the ceremonies held to mark either the beginning or end of construction projects. In 2003, for example, at one of the daily inaugurations of a new road, Hun Sen was joined by the provincial governor, Ung Sami; the deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, General Meas Sophea; and the district governor, Touch Sambor.13

This is starkly reminiscent of how political elites during the French “protectorate” era used their positions as public officials to meet their concurrent obligations as private patrons.

Mr. Hun Sen during provincial visits over the past two months, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page.
Mr. Hun Sen during provincial visits over the past two months, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page.

In another example, a PWG team heavily involved in the 2008 election was staffed by a CPP Central Committee member, a deputy provincial governor, and four directors from the agriculture, irrigation, land, and labor departments. According to available information this group was able to source funding for the building of 222 wells, 75 classrooms, 14 roads, 11 ponds, six bridges, and three dams in their district.14

Critically, many of these political elites appeal directly to either Hun Sen or his wife, Ban Rainy, for funding. If successful, state patronage is then offered to citizens in their names. This explains how the couple has managed to donate the funding for 3,458 school buildings between 1995 and 2010, many of which are emblazoned with CPP on the roof.15

It also demonstrates how political elites within the patron group exist in a state of dependence. Having provided such support to the CPP’s election campaign, they are presumably free to take advantage of the spoils of office, which is made possible by Hun Sen’s benefice and umbrella of protection.

The final group of actors worth considering in the patron group is the actual election candidates. In Cambodia, the procedure for selecting candidates is very informal, often requiring an individual to rely on a strong network of personal relationships. Given the absence of an enforced (and stringent) legal framework, candidates invariably owe their position within the CPP to a more senior patron.

This is even the case for the opposition candidates. As Carlyle Thayer16 notes, “The pattern and frequency of opposition defections to the CPP support the claims that the CPP offered [them] large sums of money, expensive goods such as motorbikes, and government positions.”

This has led to strong condemnation from the main opposition parties, be it Funcinpec initially or the Cambodia National Rescue Party more recently. Before the 2008 election, for example, it was reported how the “CPP openly courted its opponents’ candidates and officials with the promise of undersecretary-of-state postings at various ministries and Prime Minister Hun Sen himself repeatedly offered to give out hundreds of government adviser jobs to all opposition members who abandoned their parties.”17

While opposition leaders have so far resisted such overtures, it nevertheless illustrates how merely competing in elections affords the CPP an opportunity to perpetuate the established hierarchy and, by extension, neopatrimonial domination.

Lee Morgenbesser is a research fellow at the Center for Governance and Public Policy and Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University in Australia. “Beyond the Facade,” published in October by SUNY Press, is his first book.

1 Caroline Hughes, “The Political Economy of Cambodia’s Transition, 1991–2001,” 2003.

2 Christine J. Nissen, “Living Under the Rule of Corruption: An Analysis of Everyday Forms of Corrupt Practices in Cambodia,” 2005.

3 Sebastian Strangio, “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” 2014.

4 Caroline Hughes, “The Political Economy of Cambodia’s Transition, 1991–2001,” 2003.

5 Kheang Un, “Patronage Politics and Hybrid Democracy: Political Change in Cambodia, 1993–2003.” Asian Perspective, 2005.

6 Hun Sen, “Selected Adlib Addresses.” Cambodia New Vision, 2003.

7 Ker Munthit, “Hun Sen Says No Need For Him to Actively Campaign for Vote,” The Associated Press, 1998.

8 Kheang Un, interview with author, 2013.

9 Hun Sen, “Selected Impromptu Comments at the Inauguration of the Buddhist Achievements in the Pagoda of Seirei Sarpji, Preah Sdech District, Prey Veng Province,” Cambodia New Vision, 2013.

10 Kimchoeun Pak, “A Dominant Party in a Weak State: How the Ruling Party in Cambodia has Managed to Stay Dominant,” Australian National University, 2011.

11 Andrew Cock, “External Actors and the Relative Autonomy of the Ruling Elite in Post-UNTAC Cambodia,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010.

12 Benedict Anderson, “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” Culture and Politics in Indonesia, 1972.

13 Hun Sen. “Selected Adlib Address at the Inauguration of the National Road 56 in the Commune of Samraong, District of Kravanh, Pursat Province,” Cambodia New Vision, 2003.

14 Kimchoeun Pak, “A Dominant Party in a Weak State: How the Ruling Party in Cambodia has Managed to Stay Dominant,” Australian National University, 2011.

15 “School Buildings (Primary, Junior and Senior Secondary Schools),” Cambodia New Vision, 2010.

16 Carlyle Thayer, “Cambodia: The Cambodian People’s Party Consolidates Power,” Southeast Asian Affairs, 2009.

17 Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, “As Elections Near, Opposition ‘Defections’ to the CPP Mount,” The Cambodia Daily, 2013.

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