Translating the Commune Council’s New Powers from Paper

Decentralization has become a fashionable political reform around the world, and Cambodia’s efforts to move power and authority to the local level make it the next country to join the movement. But in some ways, Cambodia’s program is unique. Paul Lundberg, an expert on local government who has worked in Asia for 20 years, said he has never before seen a governmental structure like Cambodia’s, where the national and local governments are elected but everything in between is appointed.

This is inconvenient and could cause problems of authority, said Lundberg, currently lending his expertise to the UN Development Program in Phnom Penh. “If you’re going to have local self-government, the provinces and districts have to [also] have elected representation,” he said.

Cambodia’s system of electing councils based on proportions of party lists is also unique, he said. Most countries, whether their local elections are party-based or not, have local assemblies composed of representatives of smaller parts of the community, such as villages or wards.

Other observers have also criticized Cambodia’s new councils for failing to guarantee that the entire commune is represented, fearing one or two powerful or populous villages could dominate a council and look after only their own interests.

But Lundberg said he is impressed with what he’s seeing in Cambodia. “What I like about what’s going on here, as opposed to all the other places I’ve been and this may be because the bureaucracy is in sync with the political leaders is that everybody is in line with decentralization,” he said.

“Typically, bureaucracies, if they can’t stop the process, will sit back and let it fumble. I have not seen any bureaucracy so heavily supportive of decentralization.”

Decentralization has swept like a wave over the developing world during the last decade. Some experts deride it as an idea international agencies and donors have latched onto as inherently positive, even though it may not fit everywhere.

Lundberg disagrees. It is always good to move government closer to the population it serves, he said. In addition, “Decentralization fits with a market orientation. In theory, it makes more choices available to people.”

Lundberg sees this as its greatest strength. “If you have a state that says, “Thou shalt carry out agricultural programs in this way,” there’s very limited opportunity to compare that to what might have happened, whereas when decisions are made in different ways in different places, you have a lot more chance of getting it right. And the places that didn’t get it right can learn from their neighbors.”
Cambodia, too, can learn from its Asian neighbors, Lundberg said.

Nepal underwent a democratic revolution in 1990, going from absolute monarchy to open, multi-party democracy. Two years later, the country held party-based elections for 1,200 village committees.

There was no literacy requirement to run for office. The committees had no training, no systems for administration, and no money from either the central government or their local populations.

But “there was a messy, evolutionary process. People gradually learned to be elected leaders and electors.” In 1999, the second round of elections was accompanied by new national laws giving the committees more guidance and resources.

The lesson here, Lundberg said, is don’t micro-manage. “There’s a strong sense here that Cambodia has to move very fast, and that in order to move very fast they need tightly prescribed systems.” But in the first few years, the councils should be allowed to feel their way forward rather than being told exactly what to do.

In the Philippines, which held its first local elections in 1989, 40 percent of the government’s internal revenues are allocated directly to local governments. This gives them real authority and autonomy, and as a result, more qualified people are being attracted to local office: “A lot of engineers and doctors and lawyers are running for mayor now.”

Here, the key was to let go the purse-strings and send the money where it’s needed. Lundberg noted that only 14 percent of Cambodia’s national budget is currently spent outside Phnom Penh.

Indonesia does not have elected local governments, and most decisions are made in Jakarta. But funds are allocated to local governments by sector health care, agriculture, road-building, education”so at least it insures that earmarked funds make it out of Jakarta.”

China held its first democratic elections for village councils in the early 1990s. “The councils immediately ran smack against the party cadre at the county level, who were not about to let them make decisions that went against the Communist party’s dictates.” In Thailand, too, a heavy-handed Ministry of Interior maintains tight control over local governments.

In Cambodia, Lundberg said he has met district and provincial governors who “didn’t act like they were going to let the communes do anything.” It will important to give the communes breathing room.

But only to a point: When Indonesia made its attempt at decentralization, “a number of decisions made in the provinces contravened national laws, and the central government just wasn’t strong enough to say no.” The new provincial governors took over things they had no legal right to meddle in: dealing with forestry concessions, imposing tariffs for crossing provincial borders.

A balance must be struck between a central government that is too strong and one that is not strong enough, Lundberg said.

And everyone involved must be patient, he said. “In the Philippines, it’s interesting to look at how long it took an educated, mobile civil society to have its local government actually doing anything,” Lundberg said. “In Nepal, it’s interesting to see how long people kept working with local governments that didn’t do much for them.

“People here have this idea that if the communes don’t do much in their first year, everyone will completely lose faith in the whole idea. I don’t think so.”

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