Shadow Cabinets Par for Democratic Course

In evidence brought before the Military Court that led to his 7-year prison sentence, Cheam Channy was alleged to have stated that he worked to form a “shadow government” at the behest of foreign NGOs.

Among those allegedly mentioned were the US-backed Inter­national Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and the German-backed Konrad Ade­nauer Stiftung.

Cheam Channy was said to be re­sponsible for a shadow defense committee, which was referred to by the prosecution in the trial as a “shadow army” and which be­came the basis for the serious charges brought against him.

Prime Minister Hun Sen in a speech Monday went so far as to sug­gest that in­vestigations might be expanded to include foreigners be­cause of their role in the formation of the opposition’s alleged “shadow government.”

But according to many ob­ser­vers, “shadow cabinets”—also known as the opposition front bench—are a common part of many multiparty democracies and pose no threat to national security, as was alleged in the trial of Che­am Channy.

Australia, Canada, Ireland and the UK all have shadow cabinets, and Germany has a similar parliamentary organization that is officially referred to as a “Team of Com­­­petence.”

According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary, a shadow cab­­inet is defined as “those members of the opposition party who function as unofficial counterparts to the cabinet ministers of the par­ty in power.”

Members of an opposition shadow cabinet are usually matched one-to-one to members of the cabinet of the party in power.

They monitor the same issues as the cabinet, sometimes speaking out when they disagree on how the ruling party has handled a given issue or suggesting am­endments to laws under consideration.

And if the opposition obtains a par­liamentary majority in a general election, new cabinet members often come from the shadow cabinet.

Shadow cabinet members monitor all aspects of national government, including military and defense issues. Australia has a shadow minister for defense in­dustry, procurement and personnel, the UK a shadow secretary of state for defense, and Canada similarly has a “critic for national de­fense.”

In the UK, members of the shadow cabinet are referred to as the “loyal opposition” because, while different parties may differ on issues and policy, they are generally acknowledged to be working for the best interests of their constituents and country.

Similarly, the US House of Rep­resentatives and Senate have both majority and minority members of their various committees. Minor­ity members of these committees—including those on de­fense—often have different opinions than the majority members and are free to voice them. The minority’s dissenting opinions and agenda are not usually seen as a threat to government stability or national security.

Wolfgang Meyer, country representative to Cambodia for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said Monday that his group was surprised that it had been caught up in the “shadow cabinet” im­brog­lio.

“We don’t get involved at all,” he said of political power struggles in Cambodia. “We work with all political parties, but we are completely nonpartisan.”

He said his organization had never advised Cheam Channy or any­one else about shadow cabinets, but that the issue had been brought up by Cambodian lawmakers during regularly scheduled workshops on parliamentary procedure.

He said that in response, Chris­ta Reichard, a visiting German parliamentarian, spoke to representatives of the Sam Rainsy Party, the CPP and Funcinpec about how “Teams of Competence” function in the German parliamentary system.

Such teams, he said, are “not a threat to democracy or the government.”

The IRI, NDI and US Embassy declined to comment on the issue of shadow cabinets Tuesday.


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