On May 17, an indirect election is set to create new layers of local government, but while some welcome these new councils as a step forward for Cambodian democracy, others question how much they will actually change the way government works.
The poll, in which only commune councilors can participate, will determine the first-ever district, municipal and provincial councils. The creation of these councils was approved last year as part of the so-called “organic law,” and they are meant to decentralize government and give local bodies the resources to respond to local needs.
Government officials are enthusiastic, saying the councils will strengthen democracy, and even some critics say it’s a start.
“This is very important for Cambodia,” said Prum Sokha, secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior. “It’s like local democratization.”
But some experts question the value of the councils, as it appears they will likely have little power to make and enforce decisions.
The councils will serve five-year terms and meet at least 12 times a year, according to the organic law. A government subdecree puts the total number of councilors at 3,235.
Their duties are sketchily outlined in the organic law and include creating five-year development plans; reporting abuses of power to the Ministry of Interior, be they damage to the environment or the illegal occupation of land; mediating conflicts; establishing advisory committees, including one on women’s and children’s affairs; and monitoring the board of governors.
But much remains unclear when it comes to how the councils will work, according to observers.
For one thing, with the election less than a month away, the official responsibilities of the councils remain a work in progress. A committee created in the law is still in the process of deciding what functions will be transferred from the government ministries to the councils, according to Mr Prum Sokha. Assignment of funding and personnel are supposed to follow.
This process could be gradual: The law states that the committee will create medium- and long-term implementation plans for the councils, updated annually.
Asked about this process, government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith wrote via e-mail that the councils have “legal foundations and a legal framework to operate,” and that the “power and competence of these councils are clearly defined.”
“The setting up of these councils would give more importance to the role of local communities in managing their own affairs,” he wrote. “Sure because this is a new concept not everything will be perfect but the earlier we start the better.”
Maybe so, but on May 17 votes will be cast to create government bodies whose functions remain at least partly obscure.
Some observers point in particular to the relationship between the councils and the powerful, government-appointed governors at district, provincial and municipal level as an area of uncertainty.
A board of governors consists of the governor and all the deputy governors in a given district, municipality or province.
At each level of administration—district, municipal, provincial—the councils are meant to oversee the corresponding board of governors, a job that now falls to the Ministry of Interior, according to Caroline Hughes, an associate professor at Murdoch University in Australia who studies state-building in Asia.
“This represents an opportunity for scrutiny of the work of the subnational level of the various ministries and of the executive arm of government,” she wrote by e-mail.
Mr Prum Sokha compared the governors to CEOs and the councils to “governing councils.”
“CEOs usually deal with daily work,” he said. “The governor is accountable to the councils. All the work within the jurisdiction of the council, the council must know. The governor reports to them.”
But the amount of power the councils will have over the governors is unclear.
“In the law, there are some things that are clear, but something are still not clear, especially the relationship between the governor’s group and the council’s group,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. “If there is some problem with the governor, how does the council deal with them? The law only suggests you can make recommendation, advice…. They need other sub-decrees, regulations to make clear,” he said.
The organic law states that a council can write to the Ministry of Interior to request the removal of a governor or deputy governor for, among other things, poor performance. The Interior Ministry is then supposed to investigate and make a decision.
However, it is the Interior Ministry that will have appointed the problem governor or deputy governor in the first place, and both senior officials at the Interior Ministry and the governors are all appointed by the ruling party in government, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.
The UN Development Program, which wrote in a statement that the councils are a “big change” and a “change for the better,” believes the councils will be motivated to defy ineffective governors.
“For representatives, their political future will be closely tied to the quality of the services that the administrations and the governors will provide,” the UNDP wrote in an e-mailed statement. “This creates a strong incentive for councilors to challenge the governors to be responsive, efficient and effective in providing services to their jurisdictions.”
But some observers say that the councils, the majority of whose members will almost certainly hail from the CPP, might not be willing to challenge the governors, in part because councilors’ “political futures” likely depend more on the party they belong to than the people or commune councilors in their district or province.
“Whether the councils exercise an active and genuine scrutiny function, or whether they simply rubberstamp executive decisions while seeking opportunities for personal enrichment, depends in large part on who gets elected and the kinds of support and instructions they receive from their respective parties,” Ms Hughes wrote.
“Commune councilors are supposed to elect district and provincial councils, but there is no provision for district and provincial councilors to report their progress or justify their performance to commune councilors, or to meet with commune councilors to discuss any kind of commune concerns,” she added.
“I don’t think there would be a case where the majority of the council would have an incentive to disagree with the provincial governor,” said John Willis, Cambodia country director for the US-based International Republican Institute, “because they don’t have constituencies of their own to please.”
These councilors don’t have constituents in no small part because the upcoming election will only involve the participation of commune councilors, and not the general public. Critics have seized on this, saying it means the election is not fully democratic, and that the results are already a given.
When the commune councilors go to vote next month, they will be asked to choose one of only four parties—the CPP, SRP, Funcinpec or Norodom Ranariddh Party—rather than an individual. The district, municipal and provincial councilors are then selected from lists submitted by the four parties.
“Which party will they like?” Mr Koul Panha of Comfrel said of the commune councilor voters. “They will like their own party.”
Seventy percent of commune councilors are members of the CPP, meaning the CPP is likely to win a decided majority of the district, municipal and provincial council seats. If councilors vote along party lines and Funcinpec and NRP cooperate as planned, the CPP will win about 75 percent of all councilor seats next month, Comfrel has predicted.
Mr Prum Sokha of the Interior Ministry admitted that the election can be “mostly” predicted, but “not all.”
“Sometimes one party, they vote for another party,” he said.
Mr Koul Panha said the government could save money and improve the democratic character of the election by having the general public vote directly for their commune, district, and provincial/municipal councilors on the same day.
“This one is the best,” he said. “The direct election.”
SRP lawmakers pushed for the councilors to be directly elected, and SRP lawmaker and party spokesman Yim Sovann said his party would change the organic law to allow for direct elections if the SRP comes to power.
“The voters should be the people, not only the commune councilors,” he said. “But the law is the law.”
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the May election, even though indirect, is democratic. “The word ‘vote’ is democracy,” he said. “Even though this election is only for the commune councilors, but these councilors stem from the general election.”
(Additional reporting by Rann Reuy)