Cambodian election a delicate balancing act

Head and shoulders image of Lee Morgenbesser
School of Government and International Relations researcher was in Cambodia to observe elections.

Systematic corruption in Cambodia is conspicuous, even at election time, says Griffith University researcher, Lee Morgenbesser, who spent two weeks in and around the capital Phnom Penh in July.

“The corruption was toned down in the lead up to the election but it was clear to see if you looked hard enough” he said.

“The government held the election to renew their position atop a patronage system, which denotes the exchange of material goods for political loyalty.

“They essentially say to the voters, particularly people in the rural areas, ‘If you do not vote for us, we will not finish this road we half built’.”

Lee Morgenbesser is completing a PhD at the School of Government and International Relations in Brisbane, analysing why authoritarian regimes bother holding elections.

He has carried out extensive field research in Cambodia, Myanmar and Singapore to investigate this paradox.

“The question warrants consideration because scholars and policymakers repeatedly assume elections can and will facilitate democratic transition,” he says.

“While authoritarian elections are sometimes an exercise in international credibility, the case of Cambodia illustrates that they can afford to hold an election and lose some seats in the National Assembly given the extent of their power.

“But nothing will change. It is business as usual.”

Mr Morgenbesser interviewed members of the two main parties during his visit to Cambodia, paying so-called “fixers” to gain access to government officials.

He observed increased tensions in Phnom Penh in the build-up to the election, a situation that was not reflected outside the capital.

“It was generally peaceful in the rural areas because the people there are the main source of support for the government.”