Since the disappointing result for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in last year’s election, when it won only 68 out of 123 seats, there has been little discussion about how it will be able to win back support in the next national polls in 2018. Instead, some political observers and opposition supporters argue that there is nothing the CPP can do to restore public trust, and that its days in the government are numbered.
As a consequence, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) appears determined to keep the pressure on the ruling elites in the hope that the CPP will fall apart or at least produce cracks sufficient to lead to a change in leadership. However, this view seems to ignore the complexity of Cambodia’s tumultuous politics. Moreover, the ruling elites fully understand that the stakes are extremely high this time, and are convinced that they need to stay united.
Although the CPP is not in immediate danger, the party rank and file are surely pondering the future of their party. Speaking during the first cabinet meeting on September 26, 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen outlined a number of reforms that will be the priority for the government in its fifth mandate. Whether it will be able to live up to its promises remains to be seen.
Following his speech, Cambodian government ministries have been busy rolling out a laundry list of policies to address the problems that cost the CPP public support. The hope is that positive results can enable the party to avoid further decline. For its part, the opposition argues that the attempt is just a façade designed to get public attention, and that the government will renege on its promises when the threats fade.
The problem with this argument is that if reforms are for public consumption only, then what can explain Cambodia’s economic success? Since the early 2000s, the economy has been growing at an unprecedented rate. Many human indicators such as education, health, life expectancy, and literacy are improving. In addition, the number of people living below the poverty line has been significantly reduced since the early 1990s.
Yet this progress has not come without a cost, especially for the poor and vulnerable. Inequality is staggering, and shows no sign of improving anytime soon. Moreover, the problems of governance continue to hinder the country’s economic and political development. Despite tough words and frequent promises, the government has often been accused of not being honest or serious about democratic reforms.
According to the opposition, the main culprit is the lack or absence of political will, so ending the current crisis requires swift and dramatic changes in both policies and leadership. But this explanation is incomplete. Given public sentiment, the ruling elites no doubt understand that they will pay a heavy price if they fail to take action to address voters’ concerns. So why aren’t reforms moving forward with greater alacrity?
Despite the fact that the CPP’s top brass have acknowledged some of the problems that led to the loss of votes, on the rungs below them officials seem to be in denial about the growing public discontent and skepticism. And this denial can be largely explained by the structure of incentives that have been put in place and that have evolved over the years within the party.
For many CPP party members, loyalty is best expressed through actions that defend their leaders’ credibility and reputation, even if that requires denying the obvious. This phenomenon is so entrenched that it has become one of the most important factors in deciding who will get what and when in the party. Anyone who seeks to defy the status quo faces isolation or even punishment.
So even if they know that the government has made mistakes, party officials are reluctant to acknowledge them, for fear of being accused of lacking loyalty or being labeled as opposition sympathizers. Instead of speaking the truth, they attempt to cover up the bad news, and hope that they can fix the problem before their superiors finds out. The result is that leaders are not in touch with the situation on the ground, especially if they rely entirely on subordinates’ feel-good reports.
This problem has deep and serious implications. It seriously undermines the party’s ability to accurately assess Cambodia’s changing political landscape. Moreover, if public servants are not happy with their ministers, and there is no way for them to get their message across within the party, they are left with no choice but to denounce their own party. It is no coincidence that anonymous letters accusing some ministers of corruption and nepotism have circulated in social media. Of course, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to verify the authenticity of these letters. Still, they suggest that discontent toward the government is real.
Pointing out the government’s mistakes or failures should not be equated with an attack on the government. The CPP must be open to the good faith expression of genuine concerns. Draconian measures to silence party members are counterproductive, and could even backfire. It demoralizes those whose intentions are good and risks creating a party of incompetents whose purpose is only to enrich themselves.
The CPP needs to address this problem now if it wants to survive future elections. Its leaders should incentivize government officials to speak out for the benefit of Cambodia and its people. Information must be allowed to reach the top.
Breaking this tradition would also allow ruling elites to encourage the emergence of future leaders within the CPP. For a long time, party members have depended heavily on their leaders to give them direction. Those capable of bringing new ideas and solutions to their workplaces have often been discouraged by the lack of incentives. Many have unsurprisingly opted for the safest course, which is to always endorse their leaders’ ideas. They end up becoming yes-men.
The CPP’s leaders should encourage party members to take the initiative and reward them for results. Public servants in the middle and lower ranks should be granted some authority to make decisions, so that they need not always wait for their leaders’ approval. These changes would significantly accelerate the reform process and reduce unnecessary delays.
The successful adoption of these reforms would benefit everyone. The CPP’s leadership will have a better chance restoring public trust and winning back the support. Public servants will have more authority and freedom to do their work and will be fairly rewarded if they produce results. And the people of Cambodia will benefit from a more effective public sector.
Phoak Kung is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Mengly J. Quach University, Cambodia. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. He was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford and Cornell University.