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Cambodia: The Political Significance of Local Government

Cambodia’s ruling CPP could rebuild support if it helped local government be more effective.

Cambodia: The Political Significance of Local Government
Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Cambodia’s economy has enjoyed impressive growth in recent decades, lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty. Some have even called this economic success a miracle. It was certainly one factor in the landslide victory achieved by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the 2008 elections, when it captured 90 out of 123 seats. At that point, the CPP appeared unbeatable and the opposition an object of ridicule.

Five years later, and things looked very different. Support for the ruling party had fallen markedly. In the July 2013 election, the CPP suffered a disappointing result, winning only 68 seats. This prompted speculation that the ruling elite’s domination of Cambodian politics was at an end. A political impasse and mass protests followed. It took the CPP and the opposition almost a year to hammer out a deal to end the stalemate.

Now, the battlefield is moving from the streets to the parliament and supporters of both parties have high hopes that their party will be able to win enough votes in the next election to form a government. Despite some setbacks, the CPP does look set to remain the dominant force in Cambodia’s politics for some time to come. However, the road ahead will be a bumpy one that will require the ruling elite to be decisive and committed to serious reforms.

It is also important to reflect on why so many people suddenly fell out of love with the CPP. In fact, prior to the 2013 election, the CPP’s leaders were complaining that they were not getting enough credit for what they had done for the country since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in early 1979. The complaints suggest a disconnect between the party and the public.

Although Cambodia has indeed experienced unprecedented economic growth in recent years, not everyone has benefited. The so-called trickle-down effect is not fast enough, nor as widespread as it should be. Add to this widespread discontent over issues such as social injustice, corruption, deforestation, and the rule of law, all of which erode trust in the government.

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What is surprising, though, is that voters seem to have more trust in local government. Perhaps it is because they have a better idea of what local government is doing so they can easily assess its performance. Moreover, they often personally know council members, some of whom have lived and worked in their villages for many years. Another factor is that most programs at the local level are designed to tackle specific problems and to deliver some results in a short time frame.

However, the reverse is also true. If members of local government are seen to be abusing their power, it seriously undermines the credibility and reputation of the national government. For example, the shooting incident involving the former Bavet town governor at a labor protest in early 2012 still haunts the CPP. This is just one of several such cases.

Since local government can still command some degree of trust and confidence among voters, it has the potential to help the national government win back support in the next election. That can only happen if the government ensures that any allegations of misconduct involving local officials are dealt with immediately. If officials are found guilty, they must face swift and serious punishment according to the law.

Another problem is that despite their crucial role in the country’s development, many local governments remain weak and underfunded. These shortcomings seriously undermine their ability to deliver public goods and services and to represent the national government. The ruling elite should understand that if local governments are seen as effective and efficient in responding to voters’ demands and concerns, that will mean more support for the party.

The most urgent task is to strengthen the capacity of local governments. It has never been easy to attract qualified people to join public service, let alone ask them to spend long stretches working in remote areas. Moreover, those with a university education prefer to work in the private sector, given the paltry public sector salaries. Not surprisingly, many local officials are either incompetent or work outside jobs to earn extra cash.

Of course, if salaries were to be increased for local officials, then in the interests of fairness all public servants ought to get a pay rise. This might not be fiscally feasible. Perhaps the best approach is to attach some benefits to a capacity building program for local government. Another solution might be to allow local governments to raise their own revenue through tax and other services. There must be a strong and effective accountability mechanism in place to prevent any misconduct.

Given the benefits of close proximity, local governments are usually better informed about people’s needs and concerns. Thus, local governments should be given more power to make decisions on which reform areas or policies they need to prioritize in order to improve the delivery of public goods and services and develop their communities. Another advantage is that local officials can closely monitor the progress and effectiveness of programs and make changes if necessary. Still, with more power must come more responsibility.

Unlike senior party members and most party activists who only pay occasional visits to their constituencies in the several months prior to an election, local officials are in the field and on the frontlines. They thus better informed about community realities. This information could be invaluable to the national government – what was shocking during the 2013 election was not the result per se, but the false perception that led the ruling elite to believe that public support had not waned.

Although local officials play a key role in mobilizing support for their political parties, politicians should refrain from over-politicizing them as this will undermine their ability to perform tasks. If a local government is made to believe that its fate lies only in the hands of the party, it might spend its time trying to please  party leaders, rather than delivering positive results to its constituents. It is understandable that political leaders want their members to toe the line, but there needs to be a delicate balance lest they become dysfunctional.

In addition, party leaders should encourage local officials to promote civic engagement in their constituencies. Policymaking has always been seen as the province of those in power, with minimal public participation. One of the reasons for the severe deficit of trust in the government is that people feel that they do not have a say in the policymaking process, let alone shaping the direction of the country.

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Engagement should also be extended to civil society organizations (CSOs). For a long time, the ruling elite was often skeptical of the real intentions of these CSOs, accusing them of not only promoting democratic reforms, but regime change as well. Western support for these CSOs only exacerbates the mistrust. Yet many CSOs run programs that align with government policy, including education, health, sanitation, agriculture and the environment. With closer cooperation, the government might be better placed to achieve its development goals.

Although Cambodia has experienced rapid technological change, local government still lags behind. Many local officials are not computer literate. Worse, many local governments have very limited access to computers and other high-tech devices. As a result, records are still largely in paper form, and it can take months just to locate a document.

The government has begun to digitize some of these records. This is a step in the right direction. An electronic database will make it easier for local officials to design policies and programs for their communities. And technology generally is enabling local government to work more effectively. For instance, local officials can now produce an identification card electronically in a matter of minutes, as opposed to the weeks or months that was needed in the past.

The Cambodian government should not delay in introducing more serious and comprehensive reforms. More resources need to be allocated to strengthen the knowledge and capacities of local governments. However, strong and effective local government is no panacea. The national government must also tackle broader and deeper reforms to address public discontent and political polarization. Only when people have complete trust in political institutions as a means to resolve conflict will Cambodia truly enjoy stability and peace.

Phoak Kung is the vice president for Academic Affairs at Mengly J. Quach Education. He is also co-founder of the Cambodian Strategic Study Group and 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.