Despite the National Assembly’s remarkable progress in furthering democratic principals in recent years, lawmakers and critics say the parliament is still influenced too much by politics.
For example, while Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers and others can now freely express their opinions on legislation and can openly criticize the government, their suggestions are seldom heeded by the ruling party.
And many, even some CPP parliamentarians, say that implementing a vibrant parliamentary democracy-as set forth in the nation’s 11-year-old Constitution-has fallen “much short” of the goal.
“The Assembly has many positive points if you look at the [surface] picture, but the more deeply you look, you will see the old substance still exists,” said Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development. “Most debates don’t get away from the party lines.”
Political parties in many parliaments and even some presidential democracies throughout the world try to take advantage of each other for political power, she said. These parties, though, often place the national interest above the party’s. In Cambodia, she argued, legislators rarely consider the common interest.
Chea Vannath acknowledged, however, that there have been marked improvements in the parliament. As an example, she recalled that then-Assembly member Thach Reng was the only remaining opposition lawmaker immediately after the 1997 factional fighting. All other opposition lawmakers had gone into self-exile, she said.
“Since then, democracy has flourished in the parliament,” she said. “Lawmakers enjoy freedom of expression-they can criticize the government.”
Democracy advocate Lao Mong Hay also criticized the government, saying parliamentary democracy has not been fully implemented. He referred to the parliament as a “one-man show” democracy.
Some Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers claimed that contrary to what some think, democracy and freedom of speech have actually declined in the National Assembly. During the debates on the Forestry Law and the Election Law, for example, opposition lawmakers were banned from expressing opinions, opposition members said.
“The CPP Assembly leaders don’t want us to speak up and criticize the floor,” Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann said. “They are the dictators lately.”
Lawmakers from the CPP and Funcinpec disagreed.
“The opposition party can only see the bad in what the government does,” said influential CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap, who said he has served in the Assembly since 1981. “Their criticisms are destructive, and they should see what is positive about us.”
He suggested that when the opposition party criticizes the government, it should suggest solutions. “Sometimes, the criticisms are correct and taken into consideration by the government for enforcement.”
He went on to say that the culture of democracy is on the rise in the parliament and is at a much higher level than in previous years, especially in terms of passing laws. As evidence of this improvement, he brought up the number of laws passed by the Assembly since 1994: More than 150 laws have been passed, he said.
“The more laws we have, the more we can improve democracy-all the laws must protect democracy,” he said.
Funcinpec President and Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh agreed with Cheam Yeap, saying, “I am proud of the National Assembly because it has brought about such a vibrant democracy. It’s historic that we have an opposition party, and I, as Assembly president, have given full freedom to the opposition to speak out on the Assembly floor.”
Funcinpec lawmaker Klok Buddhi, the secretary of the Assembly’s legislative commission, said that the Assembly has a “new wind of democracy” that dominates the lawmakers’ debates.
He suggested, though, that the Assembly should have more technical experts to help the parliamentary commissions draft and pass better legislation.
“We don’t have a strong staff, and many commission members are not capable or even knowledgeable,” Klok Buddhi said. “So the lawmaking is slow.”
Klok Buddhi also proposed that the Assembly establish subcommissions for each of the nine parliamentary commissions in order to follow up and monitor the government, as required in the Constitution. These subcommissions could be similar to those in democratic countries like the US, he said.
Donor countries have only recently turned more attention to the parliament in terms of initiating and formulating legislation, reviewing legislation and setting up policy priorities.
The UN Development Fund, for example, donates more than $1.5 million to support capacity development in the Cambodian parliament, Funcinpec lawmaker Ok Socheat said.
Ok Socheat, who is on the Assembly’s foreign affairs commission, said the direct beneficiaries of this three-year UNDP project will be members and the permanent staff of the Assembly and the Senate.
Some still criticize the Assembly despite the purported gains and international aid.
Lao Mong Hay compared a typical parliamentary democracy to a family, with the government acting as the child and the Assembly the parent.
“In a family, parents influence their children,” he said. “But our parliamentary democracy is opposite: The child controls the parent.”