Comparative politics

A tale of two elections in Cambodia and Thailand

This week brought vastly different political news to the neighbours, which saw a major opposition win at the polls in Thailand and a further tightening of electoral space in Cambodia. In this Q&A, author and Professor Lee Morgenbesser compares the situations in both countries and puts them in broader context

May 19, 2023
A tale of two elections in Cambodia and Thailand
A Cambodian Buddhist monk shows his inked finger after casting his vote during the country's sixth general election in Phnom Penh on 29 July, 2018. Cambodia went to the polls in an election set to extend strongman premier Hun Sen's 33 years in power after the only credible opposition was dissolved, effectively turning the country into a one-party state. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)
Press play to listen to the Globe’s conversation with Lee Morgenbesser.

Cambodia’s upcoming general election, which many international observers already predicted would be little more than another sham contest, took another blow to its credibility this week.

On Monday morning, the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) officially rejected the country’s main opposition, the Candlelight Party, from registering for the July election. 

As a kind of reconstituted version of the previously dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) opposition, Candlelight had garnered about 22% of the popular vote in the last year’s local commune elections. In the crowded field of small Cambodian opposition parties, Candlelight stood as the only credible challenger to the near-total control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). 

Statements condemning the decision to disqualify Candlelight from the July election rolled in from the E.U. and Australia, as well as rights groups including Human Rights Watch and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development. The government elections committee said Candlelight had failed to file the correct registration documents – the party responded that the documents requested by the NEC had been lost in police raids on the CNRP headquarters as part of the state’s forcible dissolution of that former opposition. 

Either way, with the apparent loss of Candlelight, the CPP will have no serious competition in the July polls. This year’s contest is shaping up to resemble the national elections of 2018 – held the year after the government eliminated the CNRP – which led to the CPP establishing what political analysts often call a de-facto single-party state.

But Monday morning also brought very different news just over the border in Thailand. As Cambodia faced a blow to competitive elections, Thailand’s citizens got news of the earliest unofficial results from its national election. There, the progressive Move Forward Party won big, taking the largest number of seats in the parliament of any other party. 

The clear rejection of the military-backed government from a large portion of Thai voters was a shock, as analysts had largely not predicted Move Forward to come out on top. It was a clear moment of contrast for the two neighbouring countries, both with histories of coups, militarised rule and uncompetitive elections. 

Southeast Asia Globe spoke with Lee Morgenbesser, a comparative politics professor at Griffith University in Queensland, about the state of democracy in the region. His most recent book, The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, was published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press. He spoke with the Globe from his office, where the walls were covered with portraits of dictators. 

He’d moved Hitler to a corner so as to not show up on Zoom calls.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Talk us through what happened this week with the Candlelight Party and the historical context of Cambodia’s recent elections?
It’s not overly surprising to be frank. The Cambodian People’s Party had signalled even more than a few months ago that this was a distinct possibility. When it comes to Cambodian politics, any time that the regime is going to signal some sort of crackdown or repression, I think it’s best to take them at their word.

Historically, Cambodia was once more democratic, certainly more democratic than it is today. Since 1997 when there was a coup, the political system has become less competitive over time and there’s been increased restrictions on the media, civil society and just everyday citizens wanting to express their views and opinions. With each passing election over time, the system became more autocratic or more dictatorial.

2013 was probably the most significant chance the opposition had to make a breakthrough. The Cambodian National Rescue Party, which was a merger of two existing parties, did very well in the popular vote and very well in terms of seats in parliament. But then the regime under Hun Sen began a slow but steady crackdown on the gains they had made. This culminated in 2018 with the court, which effectively answers to Hun Sen, barring them from competing. I think the 2023 election is, to some extent, a repeat of that process, barring a new, not fully threatening opposition party, but at least a credible opposition party, from competing in the race.

In the past several months, there have been reports of violent attacks on Candlelight members. The Cambodian government also shut down one of the last remaining independent news sources, Voice of Democracy. How does the rejection of Candlelight’s registration fit into the wider trends of the country right now?
The larger trend overshadowing everything is a transition from what in academia we call competitive authoritarianism, where you have an uneven playing field that benefits the incumbent party but you nevertheless have a degree of competition, to hegemonic authoritarianism, essentially one-party rule and uncompetitive elections.

You can’t really have an independent press and a flourishing civil society and uncompetitive elections. Those three things just do not go hand in hand. If you’re going to make changes to the electoral system by barring opposition parties from competing at all, you need to make subsequent or parallel changes to the media space, to the civil society space, so that the changes you’ve made cannot really be criticised or challenged in any sort of coherent or coordinated way.

Despite the relative success of the Candlelight Party, it’s up against a very big challenge. I don’t think it was going to have immediate success and I don’t think it was a serious threat. But the regime still cannot allow a party like that to exist, given its claims that it is now the vanguard party of Cambodia. It has the only say on the future direction of the country.

Turning to Thailand, to something that was a bit more unexpected, what are the main takeaways from the results of their recent election?
I think there’s a few takeaways. I’d also add that the timing of the ruling in Cambodia, I don’t think was a coincidence, given the election not only in Thailand but in Turkey at the same time. I think there’s a degree of distraction that’s occurring. International media and foreign ministries of  leading democratic states like the United States, Australia and the European Union are still focused on outcomes in Turkey and Thailand.

While the international media has that fixation, I think it’s an opportunity for a regime to get news out that it needs to get out. I’m sure it’s still going to take some criticism, but I would argue not as much as it otherwise would if those two elections weren’t occurring.

In Thailand, on the positive side of things, it is without a doubt a rebuke by younger Thai citizens and younger Thai political operatives of the status quo. Repeated for decades now, the military seizes power when it’s in a position of disadvantage or it thinks it has something to gain. The monarch sanctifies the coup and then a new constitution is written and the legislature is stacked in favour of the military and the royalists. So I think on the positive, the results are a rebuke of that mode of political operation.

If I was to be a bit more pessimistic, my concern is, if you look at Thai politics since the mid-seventies, it’s oscillated between democracy and authoritarianism I think going on eight times now. It’s obviously got a history of coups. It’s sort of stuck in a coup trap. The worry for many is that, while this is a welcome result for democracy and heralds potential change, there’s a very increased risk that that change will be fleeting or short.

Right. We’re now nearly a decade after the military coup in 2014. What does this moment represent with the Move Forward Party sweeping the election?
While there have been successive protest movements in Thailand since 2014, the military has nevertheless been able to maintain its footing. It has civilian front parties and it’s been able to change institutions, it’s been able to use libel, lese majeste laws, at its own discretion.

I think what this suggests is that even though it was able to do all these things, the preferences of younger people in Thailand and even the hopes of younger people in Thailand never altered in any way, they were just merely suppressed. What we’ve seen in the last week is an election, even a flawed election in some ways, acting as a release valve of discontent.

We’ve been looking at these two neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia with two very different developments when it comes to elections. What does that say about the state of democracy in the region?
I’m a bit more circumspect about the state of democracy and authoritarianism in the region. I use the example of Thailand, it’s gone back and forth several times in the last couple of decades. Myanmar, if you were to be extremely serious about it, you could say it’s never been a democracy since 1962. Even that brief period between sort of 2015 and 2022, I don’t think would classify or count.

Then if you look at Singapore, it’s a stable authoritarian regime and has been since 59 or 63, depending on how you think about these things. And then Indonesia, it’s more democratic than most, but it still has significant problems when it comes to political rights and civil liberties, particularly about the role of religion in the political system and in society.

So overall, when you look at the region, some commentators or observers like to think that there’s been this substantial decline in the number of democracies or the overall level of democracy. For me personally, I can see why that’s nice to write about and get commentary about. I think the numbers don’t show that. I think the region has always been more authoritarian than democratic and it’s not even really close. This latest election is encouraging, but the region as a whole is still going to be authoritarian.

What should we be looking out for as we look to the future of elections in Southeast Asia?
You’re still going to have elections like the one in Cambodia coming up, just uncompetitive, farce elections, a facade. And Myanmar, I don’t even want to think about how bad that’s going to be in terms of freedom and fairness of the vote. These things are going to still occur and I think people need to watch them and monitor them and criticise them.

But another concern for me is the role of larger authoritarian states, Russia and China, in particular, the role these authoritarian states are going to play in elections in Southeast Asia. They’re already doing it in fairly subtle ways, whether it’s the provision of election technology from China to Cambodia, the supply of fake election monitors from Russia around the region. 

Moving beyond just integrity, looking at security, the role of disinformation and whether both citizens, civil society groups, independent media and opposition groups can actually counter, not only counter but be aware of disinformation and then counter it if they are aware of it. I think this is the next big concern that anyone that’s interested in the advance of democracy should have in the region.

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