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A whiff of reform in Cambodia

Asia Times - September 30, 2013

Peter Tan Keo When it comes to Cambodia, too often commentators focus on what is wrong, not right. While Cambodia still has a long way to go before consolidating a respectable form of democracy, promised changes that have sprung from the contested July 28 general election are potentially significant.

On September 25, long-serving premier Hun Sen held the first cabinet meeting of his newly installed government. The meeting was held despite a boycott of the new parliament's inauguration two days earlier by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Led by opposition stalwart Sam Rainsy, the CNRP has protested the integrity of the election results and refused to participate in government until an independent investigation is launched into widespread allegations of electoral fraud and irregularities. The CNRP has staged a number of street protests to press its claim and is now threatening to launch a nationwide one-day strike.

Rainsy has claimed that electoral fraud, ranging from phantom voters to security force intimidation of voters, cost his CNRP a parliamentary majority. The quasi-independent National Election Committee-endorsed result indicated the CNRP won 55 out of parliament's 123 seats. An outright CNRP win would have put a democratic end to Hun Sen's 28-year tenure, the fifth-longest of any serving head of government in the world.

To seasoned observers of Cambodian politics, the stand-off appears to cohere to a predictable pattern of post-election horse-trading where the opposition lobbies for powerful posts. Hun Sen told reporters that the CNRP has lobbied for, among others, the position of National Assembly president. Hun Sen has met with Rainsy on at least three occasions, including one five-hour meeting, to break the deadlock, so far to no avail.

Since the United Nations brokered elections in 1993, the past 20 years of Cambodian politics have been marred by political violence, accusations of electoral irregularities and fraud, a bloody coup d'etat in 1997, political stalemates, failed governing coalitions and outright power mongering. Throughout the turbulence, Hun Sen has maintained an ironclad grip on power.

A present point of divergence, however, is that the CNRP's strong electoral performance appears to have shaken Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which lost over 20 seats to the opposition compared to the 2008 election result. Less than a week in office and under strong political pressure, Hun Sen has already announced a series of reforms within the party and government in the form of a mandated code of conduct.

During the September 25 cabinet meeting, Hun Sen demanded his ministers reform, saying that change was the will of the people. He then outlined a set of codes that would reprimand and replace ineffective cabinet leaders, and called for stronger accountability to the people by parliamentarians. Crucial issues ranging from abuse of power to nepotism to corruption to freedom of expression to parliamentary checks and balances were all covered at the meeting.

One new code states that any cabinet member caught abusing their power will be held accountable by law. Those found to be "underperforming", he announced, would be immediately replaced. Another code stated that nepotism is discouraged within the government, going so far as to caution "greedy wives and abusive children from flashing luxury cars and wreaking social havoc."

Some have already questioned the premier's sincerity considering his youngest son appeared to lose at the polls but was still able to take a seat in the National Assembly. Days before the July 28 election, his two elder sons, Hun Manet and Hun Manith, were fast-track promoted to senior ranks inside the Cambodian military. Many believe Hun Sen is grooming Hun Manet to become prime minister when he eventually steps down from power.

Yet another new code suggested that the parliamentary opposition would be allowed at any time to summon the prime minister and other ministers to the National Assembly for questioning, setting the stage for a genuine system of democratic checks and balances.

Facebook and other social media outlets were also discussed. Hun Sen said the government has no plans of shuttering the interactive platforms, despite their grassroots use to expose various electoral irregularities and criticize CPP politicians. Instead, Hun Sen encouraged cabinet members to use social media to expand their reach and communication with constituents.

Curbing corruption was also on the agenda. One new code of conduct stipulated that the mobile check points that often spring up in the streets of major cities are unlawful, as is the falsification of government documents for personal business gains. Perhaps the most peculiar code was the suggestion that senior officials discontinue the mandatory attendance of ministry staff at top officials' birthday parties, as no-shows have in the past often ended up on ministry blacklists.

While many of these announced codes are unlikely to be strictly enforced, it is instructive to learn what areas Hun Sen views as needing improvement in his party. The CNRP notably campaigned on the promise to address many of the same issues. Still, skeptics are right to question the enforceability of these supposed reforms, especially considering Hun Sen announced similar codes at the beginning of his term in 2008 without much change evident to date.

Until policies are codified and laws enforced, these measures will amount to little more than a moral code of conduct that cabinet members can readily ignore. How increasingly disgruntled and politically aware voters will respond to more government inaction on these crucial issues, however, is a wildcard. But without genuine reform and structural change of Cambodian governance, the CPP will likely pay an even bigger price in lost seats at the polls of 2018.

[Peter Tan Keo is an independent analyst and founder of Global Strategy Asia. He was educated at Harvard University, The University of Chicago, and is completing a doctorate from Columbia University. Recently serving as secretary-general of the Asia Economic Forum, his research examines post-conflict reconstruction, education, and youth empowerment in fledgling democracies, with a primary focus on US-ASEAN relations. Follow his blog at usaseanforum.blogspot.com or contact him be email at petertankeo@gmail.com.]

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