Last year, when a lake in Kompong Chhnang province began to dry up amid drought conditions, farmers who used it to irrigate their crops reached out to the government official nearest to them: Tim Silat, the second deputy chief of Rolea Ba’er district’s Choeung Kreav commune.
The cash-strapped commune lacked the money to pay for the needed restoration, so Ms. Silat, a member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, worked with local CPP commune chiefs to take the issue to higher authorities.
“I brought the issue before provincial leaders during a workshop with all commune councilors” she said.
“The workshop organizer just replied that it would be developed.”
A year later, Ms. Silat—and her constituents—are still waiting.
“Recently, when I raised the issue again with the commune chief, he told me that the budget package for the commune had been reduced because the government had used the budgets to raise civil servants’ salaries, including commune councilors,” she said.
The situation highlights the challenges faced by local officials in meeting the needs of their constituents, despite reforms designed to empower them, according to a new paper published in the August edition of the Journal of Southeast Asian Economies.
The reforms have stalled because they threaten the power and income of the government elite that have long benefited from their control of resources, the paper says.
“The power of local actors has been consistently undermined and controlled by the central government and the ruling party,” write Netra Eng, head of the government unit at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, and Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“Without an empowered local level,” they write, “the ongoing concentration of power and resources will proceed unhindered.”
Decentralization reforms in 2002 and 2009 were intended to give local officials leverage and money to build the roads, schools and dams needed by their constituents. But years later, power and financing remain tightly controlled by national-level CPP officials who have little incentive to loosen their grip on the purse strings, the authors say.
The current state of affairs stands in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when the ruling socialist government was poor, and still reeling from the Pol Pot era. Back then, a weak central government allowed local authorities significantly more independence when it came to policy and taxation, the paper says.
Local officials began collecting bribes at roadside checkpoints, turning the state into a revenue-generating machine that trickled upward, the authors say, and seeding a patronage network that many analysts say remains strong today.
The 1993 general election and an ensuing law to centralize revenue collection enriched ruling CPP and Funcinpec party elite while starving local officials of meaningful power. An “upside down pyramid” of administration emerged whereby this elite monopolized resources that trickled down to local officials—if they toed the party line, the paper explains.
After winning several national elections, the CPP increasingly recognized the importance of mobilizing grassroots voters through improved services. Laws passed in 2001 and 2008 sought to empower local officials by establishing locally elected commune councils, whose members went on to elect members of similar district and provincial bodies.
But the desire to improve service delivery ran counter to the interests of the entrenched Phnom Penh party elite, Ms. Eng said in an email.
“The CPP wants to improve service delivery and we’ve seen selective efforts in that direction after the 2013 election, i.e. the education sector reform,” Ms. Eng wrote. “But remember that to seriously improve services, the CPP needs to give sufficient power over decisions and resources to local institutions, all of which would in practice require shifting power away from central level to local level, and control away from party network to state institutions.”
Ms. Eng and Mr. Ear say the direct election of commune councils has resulted in a more responsive local government that can offer piecemeal infrastructure projects.
But because most ministries have failed to transfer funding and policymaking authority to local officials, the researchers argue that control remains with CPP power brokers in Phnom Penh. And because voters choose their commune council by party rather than by individual candidates, the authors say the system favors those brokers, who appoint candidates to party lists.
Officials at the Ministry of Interior, which manages decentralization efforts, could not be reached for comment on the paper’s conclusions.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said on Friday that decentralization efforts were on track, and that local-level democracy was alive and well.
Commune councilors “gather and hold meetings in the name of resolution,” agreeing on how to spend on projects and where to build them, he said. “Those people, they empower the grassroots.”
Ms. Silat said that her commune could use more funding, as its budget had been slashed from about $17,500 in 2013 to about $13,000 in 2015.
“We do not get enough money to develop new projects that locals need,” she said, citing a plan to pave a 2-km stretch of road that had to be slashed to 1 km because of tight finances.
“I’ve spoken to other commune councilors and other communes have also gotten less funds for developing the commune,” she said.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that he too had observed uneven reforms.
Commune-level government is more responsive to citizens and includes more women than in the past, Mr. Panha said Friday. But decentralization has been “very slow,” stalled by local officials’ inability to collect taxes and raise revenue. Commune councilors must wait for money from the central government, he said.
And local officials are wary of causing a stir for fear of losing their perches, Mr. Panha said. Political higher-ups “dismiss council chiefs when they do not toe party line,” he said, creating a climate of fear.
Mr. Panha said local officials should be given more control over education and health care projects, and more independent candidates should run in commune elections.
“The people on the ground, maybe they want to control their own destiny.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified researcher Netra Eng as a man. She is a woman.