Legislative Body Questions Its Efficacy and Future Role in Government

Thach Setha has been going to work for the past five years, though he still isn’t quite sure what his job actually is.

The Sam Rainsy Party senator, like the Sen­ate’s 60 other members, has been regularly re­ceiving his monthly $1,000 paycheck and nearly $800 ex­pense allowance from the legislative body. But according to Thach Setha, he and the other Senate members have little work to do.

Since the Senate began in 1999, it has not accomplished much, he said.

Every day while the Senate is in session, Thach Setha and his colleagues go to their offices in the Sen­ate compound on Norodom Boulevard, which also houses a large tropical garden and its own golf driving range.

But, he said, there’s usually nothing to do but read the newspapers, and occasionally, discuss draft laws. “I don’t know what we work [on]. We only go see some newspapers,” he said.

Without a functioning National Assembly due to the current political deadlock, he added, there has been even less work to do because, for more than six months, the Assembly has passed no draft laws for the Senate to review.

As the first five-year Senate term comes to an end March 25, the senators plan to discuss extending their mandate another year and consider their future.

Reports last year that the government could not afford to carry out the Senate’s constitutionally mandated election this year raised questions as to what will happen to the legislative body. Though many political analysts and Senate members have little doubt it will carry on, reforms, they said, must be made.

“I want to keep [the Senate] but we must amend the Constitutional law for the Senate to work,” Thach Setha said.

Earlier last month, Thach Setha’s fellow opposition party senator, Ou Bunlong, agreed.

The Senate currently has no real power, Ou Bunlong said, adding that it can debate and give opinions on draft laws but has no authority to strike them down.

Under the Constitution—updated in 1999 to include a new chapter for the Senate—the legislative body has one month to examine a draft law after it has been passed by the Assembly. If the Senate approves the bill, it is then promulgated. If not, it’s sent back to the Assembly.

But, the Constitution states, when the As­sem­bly considers a draft law for a second time, it can adopt it through an open vote with a simple majority of the Assembly’s 123 lawmakers, thereby allowing it to overrule the Senate’s suggestions.

Sending a bill back to the Assembly, however, rarely happens. Ou Bunlong said he recalls the Senate rejecting bills only twice in the past five years.

In 1999, the Senate objected to the Assem­bly’s proposal to require that the Ministry of Wo­men’s and Veterans’ Affairs be headed by a woman. The Assembly ended up changing the measure, allowing the post to be occupied by either sex.

The second time involved a procedural error involving an amendment to the Untac penal code. The Assembly had passed the amendment, but called it a “draft law,” prompting the Senate to turn it back to change the name of the bill to recognize it as an “amendment.” However, the name was not changed.

The Senate originally emerged from negotiations between the CPP and Funcinpec over how to resolve the 1998 post-election deadlock.

At the time, political analysts claimed the CPP had proposed forming the Senate as a way for the parties to share power. It allowed CPP President Chea Sim to remain the country’s acting head of state by appointing him president of the Senate, and made way for Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh to become president of the Assembly.

Even in the early days of its inception, the Senate stirred controversy. Some political analysts cautioned it would cost too much and questioned its efficacy.

The same points of criticism remain today. With expenses topping $4 million in 2003, the Senate has come at a hefty price, some say.

“It’s not as effective as we had expected,” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

“They have no idea of a role yet to coordinate between the National Assembly and the government,” despite earlier hopes that the Senate could provide “checks and balances” for the other two bodies, he said.

Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, agreed.

“The Senate is still not a functioning body in terms of its roles and responsibilities,” Chea Vannath said.

Though she said that the Senate has been successful in alleviating the power struggle between the political parties, “other than that…I cannot recall” its other accomplishments.

She added: “Ideally speaking, if we can abolish it, it’s fine. But pragmatically, the Senate needs to reform its duties and responsibilities to make it a real check and balance system.”

One way to do this, Koul Panha said, is to grant the Senate power to strike down draft laws. Another, he said, is to follow Thailand’s lead and elect new senators based on an “individual system” rather than a partisan one. That would mean promoting individuals—professionals and businessmen—to run for Senate positions in a national election, similar to that required of the National Assembly, making them accountable to their districts rather than to their parties, Koul Panha suggested.

The Senate drew fire in late 2001 when three CPP senators were ousted in what political observers called an “unlawful” expulsion. According to CPP officials, Chhang Song, Pou Savath and Phay Siphan were dismissed be­cause they deviated from their party’s support for a bill on the detention of police suspects.

Months after his dismissal, Chhang Song is­sued a statement defending his objection to the bill.

“As a Cambodian senator, I did not have to speak,” he said. “But I could not just sit there silently like a potted plant.”

Despite the criticisms, others argue the Senate has accomplished a lot in its short life.

“The Senate has only been created a short while but it is well-known and has an international reputation,” said the body’s secretary- general, Oum Sarith, adding the Senate re­ceives aid from foreign governments and organizations in Japan, Germany, Australia, France, Canada and Belgium.

The Senate has “encouraged democracy” and “strengthened the legislative institutions,” he said. Over the past five years, he said, it has passed more than 80 laws.

Oum Sarith added that the Senate helps government management by receiving complaints from ordinary citizens and referring them to the appropriate government authorities.

“The Senate accepts at least 100 complaints” from citizens each month, he said, though he did not elaborate on the nature of the complaints.

To further help the Senate’s work, Oum Sarith said, it plans to seek international donors to help expand a building in the Senate compound, intended to house the offices of its secretariate staff. Currently, the Senate employs about 305 staff members.

As the end of their current mandate looms, the Constitution calls for the next term of senators to be elected by a “non-universal election,” in which voters would include only special interest groups and business groups that have yet to be determined. A law on how to proceed with the Senate elections has not yet been passed by the Assembly, which—due to the government deadlock—has prompted calls for the one-year extension on its current term.

Given approval by King Norodom Siha­nouk, plans for the extension need only the go-ahead by two-thirds of the 61 senators.

But what happens after the one-year extension has finished?

“Only the government can answer,” said Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak, Funcinpec’s first deputy president of the Senate, last month.

But, he said, one thing is certain: “We must represent really the aspirations of the Cam­bo­dian people…. It should be up to the people whether or not they want a Sen­ate.”

(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)


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