Much At Stake in Cambodia’s First Foray into Local Government

Like many journalists in the US, I was privileged to begin my career witnessing grassroots democracy in action. That meant I attended many, many stupefyingly dull town council meetings.

Each council was a bit different. In one town, a councilman with a fondness for Harley­­­­­-Davidson motorcycle shirts screamed that his colleague, a dear old lady, was fixing the town’s books. Another council typically spent most of the “public meeting” in a back room, then emerged to soberly announce its decisions without discussing a word in public.

The meetings were usually sparsely attended, by people who had little better to do. There was the man who claimed that the town was trying to poison its residents using toxins in the detergent that cleaned the police cars. Another person said the entire council should be “fired” for letting people keep their garbage cans out well after collection time.

In short, local government in the US suffers from a severe glamour deficiency. Most council leaders lack eloquence or charisma. No one cares if local councilmen are cheating on their wives, or whether they lie about it (except the wives). Young people seriously interested in politics usually head straight for Washington. No mother tells her boy that if he works hard, he can grow up to be a planning chief.

Regardless, these councils were democracy in action. They had real influence on whether the streets, the parks or the drinking water were clean. They helped to determine whe­ther a factory, a corporate headquarters or a waste incinerator was going to move into a town, and in whose back yard it would be located. Often they could influence whether local police and firefighters were responsive, or lax and corrupt. And local residents held the councils more or less accountable.

US citizens usually don’t vote in large numbers for local elections, and don’t always know exactly what their local government does. Nonetheless, it can be argued that during peacetime, local governments have considerably more influence than the federal government on most people’s daily lives. Immigration or defense policy may be interesting topics, but your average US citizen spends more time thinking about the potholes on the streets or his water bill.

Cambodia has never had a comparable system of local government. That will change on Feb 3, when the nation holds its first nationwide commune elections.

All the publicity about the elections, including the allegations of intimidation and violence, are in fact just the ripples of what could be a sea change in Cambodian society: the emergence of local power. Events in the coming weeks will determine whether the chan­ges are cosmetic or truly lasting. It may be several years, however, before a true verdict can be reached on whether democracy has taken hold in the far reaches of this country. The success, or failure, will show up in a thousand little ways. This revolution will not be televised.


Most Cambodians may never have met their current government-appointed commune chief. They may fear the chief’s very name. Nonetheless, the commune is the next great hope for popular democracy in Cam­bodia.

The country’s 1,621 communes are a remnant of the colonial era. Communes were established by a 1908 French royal decree which stated that their leaders should be demo­­cratically chosen. In the 1950s and 1960s, and again in the 1980s, occasional elections for commune chief were held in some provinces. But on the whole, the commune system largely existed to carry out orders from above and to collect taxes and data.

Never particularly powerful in the first place, many commune chiefs became despised in the 1980s when, as an arm of the communist state, they were ordered to conscript soldiers and forced labor. (Many of these unpopular chiefs were not placed on the ballot by the Cambodian People’s Party for this election.)

Commune government performs a few simple roles. Commune chiefs register births and marriages. They help resolve minor disputes. They have some control over local security, and retain some judicial powers. They do the bidding of the central government and their party.

In other words, commune chiefs don’t play a major role in people’s lives. In a survey by Swiss researcher Joakim Ojendal, two-thirds of villagers said a commune representative “seldom” or “never” came to their village.

Come February, the popularly elected council will gain two major powers: the power to undertake local development, and the power to raise taxes for its own use. Residents will need time to digest these changes. Surveys show that people do not expect commune officials to work on development. Nor do people have much experience with direct taxation, as opposed to more-or-less official “fees” and bribes.

But in a country where democracy is still young, effective local government could vastly increase the average Cambodian’s sense of empowerment.

“Local government can be a really fertile ground for learning about democracy,” says David Ayres of the Commune Council Sup­port Project. “Taking people’s money and spend­ing it locally is a great way to encourage participation on the micro level. Eventually, that awareness of how things work is raised to the national level.”

As the election approaches, much attention has been paid to whether the communes will truly answer to the people. There are concerns that the Ministry of Interior will retain a strong influence because each commune will have a clerk appointed and trained by the ministry (although a commune council can have the clerk replaced).

The success of the new commune system will likely depend on whether councils have the money, the power and the ability to provide real results for their constituents. If the commune councils can’t provide those results fairly quickly, Cambodians may see them as just another layer of ineffective or corrupt government.

It may be at least a year before the policies and regulations are in place that will allow councils to raise taxes, government officials say. In any case, with most rural areas mired in poverty, most observers do not expect significant revenues for local development to be raised locally. “How do you get blood from a stone?” Ayres says.

So in the short term, nearly all of the communes’ funds will come from the central government.  The government has committed 1.2 percent of its budget next year to the new communes. Total funding for communes will be $6.5 million, including $1.5 million from donors. Ministry of Interior officials have set a goal that the government will do­nate five percent of its budget to the communes by 2005, but there is no guarantee that will happen.

The commune’s powers are only broadly outlined in the current law. Before the election, the inter-ministerial National Committee for Support of the Commune is expected to issue subdecrees determining more precisely what communes can do, their financial procedures, and the role of the clerk. Later subdecrees will determine the types and amounts of taxes they can collect.

The councils will likely take over such functions as maintenance of local roads and brid­ges fairly quickly, predicts Scott Leiper, a UN adviser to the government on decentralization. Eventually the communes may take over more complex tasks now assigned to the health, education or agriculture ministries, he said.

The extent of the communes’ powers will depend largely on whether the communes are seen as having the capacity to administer them properly, said Sak Setha, the director of the Department of General Administration in the Ministry of Interior and the government’s point man on decentralization.

Government ministers are not always expected to let go of power easily, although any pitched battles are occurring at closed meetings. This may explain why “emergency” subdecrees on crucial subjects like the functions of the communes are not expected to be passed until January—by which time the election campaign will already be under way. Sak Setha admits the process requires teaching the ministers “a lot of new concepts.”

“Real power is linked to money,” said Anders Frankenberg, second secretary at the Swiss Embassy, a major funder of decentralization efforts. “It’s one thing to have elections, but if you have no money and no power, it creates no threat to the system. Changing that part is much harder.”


Each commune has only a few thousand residents, and some observers have wondered whether the communes are big enough to carry out significant development projects. District or provincial elections might have made more sense. But it would be hard to imagine the CPP allowing an election that could have cost it all of Phnom Penh or Sihan­ouk­ville.

There are signs the communes may eventually be able to play a significant role in development. The government has announced plans to merge many communes before the next  local elections, thus creating elective bodies with larger populations. Also, villagers in several hundred communes have already been managing development for a few years with the help of so-called development councils.

Village development councils arose largely as a way for NGOs to give villagers some control over development funding without having


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