By: Astrid Norén-Nilsson – astrid.nn [at] gmail.com
In the last national elections in 2013, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) experienced a strong surge in support, finishing a close second to the long-incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Whilst the CNRP campaigned on an anti-money politics, rights-based agenda, the CPP has relied on gift-giving practices to maintain links with voters. The strong CNRP gains therefore raise two important questions. Are CPP gift-giving practices starting to lose their legitimacy in the current political order? And could this mean we are seeing a new, democratic, rights-based conscience emerging in Cambodia?
Contrary to previous assumptions amongst scholars, popular demand for full citizenship rights to access state resources amongst Cambodians seems to trump welfare and security aspirations attainable through patronage benefactions. In the current system, power is believed to be centralized to politicians and ministries exercising control over resources, and maintained to a large extent by rural support sought through the distribution of material gifts and physical infrastructure. The CNRP, however, challenges this structure by delegitimizing clientelistic exchanges and pushing for job creation and decent salaries to replace gift-giving practices.
Though gift-giving has by all accounts played an important role in cementing CPP power, the provision of exceptional benefits with an eye to electoral results is increasingly equated with vote buying, which Cambodians seem to widely reject. The CNRP’s public program seems closer in line with popular political values reflecting a preference for personal welfare achieved through one’s own labour over that obtained through social relations with political representatives. Ordinary voters do not see donations in a positive light unless they stem from a genuine concern for popular well-being.
Thus, ideas of meritorious gift-giving in Cambodia as a desired ideal co-exists with an increasingly stronger belief in rights, and the desire to secure these in terms of income, access to public services, and political rights. The CPP’s patronage system has started to crack, and unless the political party changes its manner of provision, popular discontent looks set to produce ever stronger demands for political change in the future.
About the Author:
Astrid Norén-Nilsson is an Associate Senior Lecturer at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University. Her scholarship focuses on the politics of Cambodia in the post-conflict reconstruction era (1993 -).
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- Astrid Norén-Nilsson, “Good gifts, bad gifts and rights: Cambodian popular perceptions and the 2013 elections,” Pacific Affairs 89, no. 4 (2016): 795-815.
- Alex Willemyns, “A gift for electioneering,” Phnom Penh Post, 20 December 2016.
- Lee Morgenbesser, “The failure of democratisation by elections in Cambodia,” Contemporary Politics (2016): 1-21.
- Caroline Hughes, “Understanding the elections in Cambodia 2013,” AGLOS: Journal of Area Based Global Studies (2015): 1-20.
See our other memos on Cambodia.