On February 20th, 2015, a Royal Decree, signed by Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, officially appoints Van Sam Oeun, a former CNRP lawmaker, who recently defected to the ruling CPP on the ground of “not having an opportunity to serve the nation in accordance with his will and experiences”, a personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, adding him to one of the more-than-a-hundred advisors the Prime Minister already has. Despite repeated denial from both the Prime Minister and Mr. Sam Oeun himself, the defection is widely perceived as a political trade, in which a shift of partisanship is rewarded with political power. To many Cambodians, such provision of position to a newly-defected member into the ruling CPP is not at all a surprise. The motive of this defection is to a large degree an open secret- a patronage deal. The defection of Mr. Van Sam Oeun is merely one of the series of party switching, particularly to the CPP, which has long characterized Cambodia’s party politics. Although party switching is an all too common phenomenon in Cambodian politics, very scant attention has been paid to how it portrays Cambodia’s party system. Two observations can be made from this pattern.
First, frequent party switching in Cambodia signifies the absence of programmatic/ideological commitment of political parties – an important feature of party identity which effectively binds party politicians, activists and members into its coalition. In a party system in which political parties lack clear political programs or ideologies, and particularly where selective incentives are commonly rewarded to defectors, politicians are motivated to shop for the best offer because partisanship is inspired by personal benefits, not by any sense of collective belonging to the party. In Cambodia’s party system, programmatic/ideological labels of political parties have been largely absent. Parties, therefore, have become electoral vehicles for ambitious politicians to gain access to public office, and with that, to state resources.
The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in spite of its longstanding existence, has yet to be able to establish clear political programs/ideologies to distinguish itself from other political parties. Its primary source of membership mobilization, excluding its waning past legacy of “national liberation”, has been clientelistic appeals, including, among others, outright gifts, vote-buying, patronage jobs and state contracts/licences. Very few, if any, CPP members, activists, and politicians tend to associate themselves with the party based off its political programs. The absence of political programs/ideologies also applies to other political parties. Funcinpec Party, whose initial popular support and electoral victory in 1993 sprang primarily from the heroic symbol of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, has not been able to present itself as a coherent party with distinguishable party ideologies, except its claim to protect Cambodia’s monarchy. Given the declining roles and influence of the King in contemporary Cambodian politics, Funcinpec’s party platform is no longer appealing to its members and voters. Funcinpec’s political reification in the public imagination further declines following its joining in the coalition government with the CPP in 2003. As an invisible junior partner in the coalition, Funcinpec cannot distinguish its party programs from those of the CPP. And neither can Funcinpec supporters. The newly-merged Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), despite its increasing credibility as a real threat to the incumbent CPP, has also yet to be able to institute its own distinct programmatic policies. Its “seven-point” party programs are still largely populist and to a large extent are vulnerable to external economic shocks. To do the CNRP a fair justice, however, it is too early to judge the party, given its sheer newness in the electoral system. The absence of party programs among political parties in Cambodia is evidently shown in Asia Foundation’s survey released in December 2014, which shows that two third of the respondents were not aware of major policy differences among parties.
Second, the fact that newly defected politicians are generally rewarded with (lucrative) political positions indicates that the CPP’s party structure is weakly-organized and that personalism triumphs party organization. In a well-organized party structure, accepting new defectors is generally fiercely confronted by party members, who anticipated increased competition for chances of promotion. An addition of a lateral member into the party structure would undoubtedly contribute to the crowd of people queuing in the waiting list. within the CPP, new defectors are almost instantly lifted up the ladder, bypassing the existing members, especially the party rank-and-file. An obvious case in point is Mr. Sam Oeun’s immediate appointment as PM Hun Sen’s personal advisor, a position supposedly granted regardless of Mr. Sam Oeun’s personal service, seniority or degree of loyalty to the party. A noticeable wave of defection from Funcinpec to the CPP in 2009, following the latter’s landslide victory in the 2008 elections, also took a similar trait. A significant number of defectors obtained government positions across ministries. Such “shortcut” promotion of new defectors therefore suggests that the internal life of the CPP is not steered by the party, but rather by its leader, thereby substantially weakening internal-party democracy.
The aforementioned description explicitly illustrates that the frequent party switching in Cambodia is the direct result of clientelism and inchoate party system. Political parties have not been able to institutionalize their distinct party programs and organization to sustain party loyalty from their members, activists and supporters. Clientelistic appeals have instead mainly been used as resources for electoral mobilization, particularly for the ruling CPP. Other than party switching, high electoral volatility, party schism, party merger, and low barrier of political entry into the electoral arena are among some other outstanding characteristics signifying the fluidity of Cambodia’s party system.