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Reassessing Cambodia’s Patronage System(s) and the End of Competitive Authoritarianism: Electoral Clientelism in the Shadow of Coercion

Loughlin, N. (2020). Reassessing Cambodia’s Patronage System(s) and the End of Competitive Authoritarianism: Electoral Clientelism in the Shadow of Coercion. Pacific Affairs: an international review of Asia and the Pacific, 93(3), pp. 497-518. doi: 10.5509/2020933497


The dominant literature on Cambodian politics over the past two decades suggested that a mixture of elite and mass clientelism had enabled the hegemonic Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to rule via competitive but authoritarian elections, while lessening its previous reliance on repression and violence. Such explanations did not predict the upswing in contestation in the country in 2013 and thereafter. Neither do they account for the crackdown that followed. Following literature that draws attention to the tensions in building and maintaining political coalitions under authoritarianism, and demonstrating the difficulties in maintaining competitive authoritarianism over time, this article draws attention to structural, institutional, and distributional impediments to the CPP leadership in building and maintaining effective reciprocal relations with electoral clients while simultaneously balancing the interests of the military and other elites at the core of the regime. To make its argument, the article compares weaknesses in the CPP’s electoral clientelism with the effectiveness of patronage within the security forces, seen through the lens of Cambodia’s experience of land dispossession. It shows that an extractive and exclusive political economy privileged the interests of regime insiders over potential mass electoral clients precisely during the same period the CPP was supposed to be securing its hold on power via mass electoral clientelism. This further explains why the regime fell back on repression over reform in response to the upswing in contestation manifest from 2013, and why, despite the failings of its mass patronage project, repression has nevertheless been successful as a strategy for regime survival during a period of heightened popular contestation.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article has been published in Pacific Affairs, DOI:
Publisher Keywords: Cambodia; clientelism; patronage; competitive authoritarianism; political parties; Cambodian People’s Party; Hun Sen; coercion; land grab
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DS Asia
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > International Politics
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