Values are changing in Cambodia, but does that indicate a significant urban-rural divide?
By Dr Markus Karbaum
Although Cambodia’s economic development and recent upheavals in its political sphere are highly visible, the evolution of values in the cultural and social realms is more opaque. There are changes in the status of women as role models, the traditional role of family ties in relationships is diminishing, and the ethical principles of Cambodian Buddhism, as opposed to the practice of ritual, are becoming more prominent.
However, these changes are moving slowly. Perhaps the most dominant component of changing values is the decline of hierarchical structures within Cambodian society: The principle of subordination is decreasing whereas the motivation for upward mobility is growing.
However, this process is still limited to the micro level of Cambodian society and does not find its equivalence in the political system: Political decisions are made by a very small group of people who control the whole country. Since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, this group has not changed a lot, and its members have divided the country among themselves, their families and cronies.
Whereas this leadership style was widely uncontested by the Cambodian people over the years, this year there appears to have been a sudden shift. Now, the long-ruling government faces a crisis it has never experienced before. If the current leaders do not want to lose more support among Cambodian voters, and if they do not want to react with repressive means, they can only incorporate the change in values into the political agenda. This means, for example, more participation rights for the people, a general guarantee of private property and the stepwise
constitution of a welfare state.
The change in values in Cambodia includes a second crucial dimension. Given that Cambodia’s general development is heterogeneous, some regions benefit from economic growth while other parts of the country lag behind. It is safe to assume that this also influences general values, attitudes and behaviour. For example, it is very likely that a well-educated, urban resident’s way of life differs significantly from that of a subsistence farmer in a remote province. Basically, one may expect that changes in values proceed faster in urban
Cambodia than in rural Cambodia.
If this gap widens too much, it can have considerable consequences for a society. Political scientists use the term ‘cleavage’ to describe division within a society. A term that may fit Cambodia is ‘urban-rural cleavage’. In democratic societies, an urban-rural cleavage can be the origin of a party system: While one party tends to represent the interests of the rural population, another party may focus on urban voters. If this cleavage is extremely dominant in a society, it becomes the determinant factor for the whole political system.
It is interesting to consider whether the results of Cambodia’s national election in July reflected the existence of an urban-rural cleavage. In theory, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) represents a modern way of life with a focus on non-authoritarian leadership. By doing so, the CNRP rather complies with the interests, needs and political attitudes of urban citizens. In practice, however, the party’s policies also consider the interests of rural Cambodians, especially in relation to infrastructure projects and land-grabbing issues. In contrast, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) offered a traditional package to voters, mainly gifts (money, rice, kramas and crockery) and the call for solidarity with the government. This strategy was more
effective in rural areas.
However, the election results do not allow us to postulate that there is a deep urban-rural cleavage. Although the CNRP won in the largest (and urban-influenced) constituencies, the CPP were not far behind. Furthermore, political programs do not play that important a role in a voter’s decisions. Even if the interests of voters in urban and rural areas differ, they were not picked up by the political parties to put into their policies. Instead, both the CNRP and the CPP currently follow a catch-all approach in order to attract voters with diverse viewpoints.
At the moment, the existence of an urban-rural cleavage is questionable, though changes in values will continue affecting Cambodia’s political competition. It is safe to assume that any political party that ignores this evolution will not be successful in the next national elections.