Boston University

Stealth Authoritarianism in Practice: Cambodia’s Failed Democracy by Huy Do

On January 7, 2019, thousands of Cambodians gathered to celebrate the 40th Victory Day, the annual celebration of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. At the forefront of this momentous event, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadet who defected and led the liberating forces, recalls, “there is a history that is caused by politicians who used people to achieve their personal interest,” disregarding his former superiors, those who brutally violated his people’s rights. In any democracy, one would consider such a statement a backlash against the local spread of populism, perhaps even a symbol of the state’s consolidating democratic norms. Yet contrary to the long-standing leader’s pompous statement, Cambodia has been far from a democratic paradise.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) lack of institutional forbearance and mutual toleration, alongside its use of extrajudicial means to dictate domestic politics, portrays its evident stealth authoritarian tendencies. Just a few months earlier in July 2018, Cambodia held a controversial election, one in which the incumbent barred its only major opposition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and its own citizens from democratically determining political rulership.

In fact, following its victory in the 2017 communal elections, Hun Sen gradually disassembled the CNRP and arrested its leader, Kem Sokha, for treason. Even more, he influenced the Supreme Court’s rejection of a subsequent appeal. The judicial review process, in theory, is independent of and thus serves as a system of check-and-balance on the executive branch of the government. Yet despite its noble intentions, such a powerful mechanism is still susceptible to political influences. Even Supreme Court Justices in the United States, a consolidated democracy, operate with inherent political biases. By appointing its ally, Kong Srim, as the President of the Supreme Court and influencing his decisions, the CPP skillfully shifted accountability away from the executive branch in the name of democracy. Just as Varol argues, with “judges unlikely to engage in a resistance effort against powerful incumbents,”[1], the CPP “relies on judicial review, not as a check on their power, but to consolidate power,”[2] and thus exemplifies stealth authoritarianism.

From a different standpoint, the CPP’s misuse of its political powers to prevent the opposition from competing for power, as Levitsky and Ziblatt would argue, suggests its incapacity for mutual toleration. Democracy, as they put, resembles a pickup basketball game, one in which players compete for victory. Yet to facilitate this spiritedness, players must also compete with a degree of restraint. In other words, they can call fouls, but they must recognize their opposition’s right to criticize their wrongdoings. As the CPP forms a de facto one-party system and “justifies its consolidation of power by labeling its opponents as an existential threat,”[3] thus, it directly undermines its own claim to democracy.

Simultaneously, leading up to the 2018 elections, many of Cambodia’s independent press firms, especially those that publicly voiced their disapproval of the incumbent’s legal abuses, witnessed drastic tax raises, pushing them into financial troubles. Hun Sen, just as many other politicians, recognizes that all independent media firms in a de facto authoritarian state, have, at some point, violated the state’s nuanced, yet contradictory laws. As the CPP constructed a culture of self-censorship, one that “undermines the public’s ability to observe and criticize incumbent politicians,”[4]thus, it unlawfully allowed the executive branch to conduct biased political missions. Such practices, regardless of their legal undertone, simply serve to limit vertical accountability. In other words, by misusing lawsuits against dissidents and preventing information that harms the incumbent, the CPP embraces another stealth authoritarian trait.

Even more, over its extended reign, the CPP has implemented surveillance institutions to influence rural voters. In fact, despite significant socioeconomic progress, rural Cambodians continue to rely on local institutions for all daily transactions. With such blatant control, incumbent local leaders have raised the cost of supporting the opposition. If one were to support the CNRP, one could easily lose social benefits or even access to one’s land. As a result, voter partisanship naturally shifted towards the incumbent in recent years. Not only so, after dismantling the CNRP, the CPP inherited complete domination over the national Election Committee. Although such violations have yet been recorded, the CPP’s capacity for ‘constitutional hardballs’ suggests that it may have manipulated election laws to serve its political agenda. After all, without an opportunity to freely support their candidate of choice, for much of Cambodia’s rural population, voting is far from the Schumpeterian democratic exercise of “their ability to decide issues through the election of individuals to carry out their will.”[5] The CPP, once again, is a stealth authoritarian regime that uses surveillance to “chill the exercise of civil liberties.”[6]

As they immerse themselves in an eventful day of celebrations, Cambodian elites can optimistically view Hun Sen’s declaration as a safeguard against their dark history, one that is plagued by memories of a brutal regime. Perhaps their satisfaction with the status quo is a direct effect of the nation’s recent economic boom. Yet for much of its population, just as Varol states, democratic institutions are the very means by which modern authoritarian regimes undermine their political rights. So long that Hun Sen continues to unlawfully oust competing forces, limit free press, and influence voters, Cambodian democracy will continue to be far from the paradise he, himself, declares. In the same manner, so long that the CPP continues to flaunt its political domination despite international critiques, Cambodia, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain on our lengthy list of global authoritarian states.


[1]Varol, Ozan O. (2015). “Stealth authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review, 100(4), 1673-1742. 1689.

[2] Ibid., 1679.

[3] Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, Daniel. (2018). How democracies die (First ed.). New York: Crown Publishing. 106.

[4] Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” 1694.

[5] Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). “The Classical Doctrine of Democracy.” Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. 250.

[6] Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” 1710.


Photo by Heng Chivoan, “Hun Sen marks 40th Victory Day with ‘division’ warning” (The Phnom Penh Post). Creative Commons Zero license.

1 Comment

  1. Zhuoyang Song

    February 13, 2019 at 10:56 pm

    I think you did a really good job of describing the scenario of Cambodia current leader is using his power and institutions to achieve authoritarian regime. The idea of stealth authoritarianism is well represented in this case that the leader is using techniques to eliminate opposition sides and get absolute control of the states. As you mention that there’s a lack of mutual toleration and forbears that remark democracy in Cambodia and you provide sufficient evidence to show that Cambodia is now facing stealth authoritarianism and I found this article is very convincing.

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