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A general view of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh earlier this year.
A general view of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh earlier this year. Scott Howes

Political decay in Cambodia

Some say that politics is a good thing as it could generate good policies to serve the greatest number of the population.

Many simply deny such potential because, for them, politics has always been business as usual, it can never really deliver on the socio-economic purposes for which it is intended.

This troubling disbelief has been an inconvenient truth even in widely respected democratic countries.

American commentators have lamented about the so-called political decay that has eaten up Washington.

This sad experience, unfortunately, is rampant in most developing countries and in Cambodia in particular.

Awkwardly, Cambodians have not experienced good and honest politics for a very long time.

Events in our recent memory are testimony of acts of vengeance, mistrust, sometimes even of hatred through ill-formulated rhetoric against each other and certain groups of minority.

But returning to the core definition of political decay, one needs to associate it with the inability of political institutions to handle new and changing demands.

In other words, political decay happens when the state is unable to accommodate necessary changes and, instead, tries to hang on to the status quo that doesn’t fit anymore.

This, according to Samuel P Huntington’s Political Order In Changing Societies, is a recurrent trend in many developing countries whose traditional state institutions could not properly handle the wave of modernisation.

Applying this staggering observation to Cambodian political development, the result is devastating: Cambodia now has a bureaucracy that often becomes inefficient, one that is unable to carry out its missions and awaits (conflicting) instructions on an almost daily basis.

One excellent example of the many current decays in Cambodian politics is the recent enactment of the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations.

While it is well documented that associations and NGOs have been champions in initiating and upgrading the civic education for the rural poor which represent more than half of the total population, helping them to take part in and support the liberal democratisation, the state has adopted a backward policy by enacting a restrictive law that would actually curtail democratisation altogether.

Unsurprisingly, many commentators have pointed out that the state had become unable to accommodate the rapid change towards a liberal democracy in the mindset of the rural poor.

Thus, instead of upgrading itself to remain relevant and take the lead on democratisation effort, the state has gone backward, opting for a type of governing that quite resembles a police state, which we as a country abandoned a long time ago.

What is even more politically inconvenient is that “strengthening and expanding cooperation with the civil society” has been an inseparable part of the published political platform of the government under the fifth mandate of the parliament.

What kind of purpose does this evident breaking of the promise serve?

In The Sources of Political Dysfunction, an essay written for Foreign Affairs, political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues that there could be two reasons why political decay happens.

The first one, he says, is cognitive: “[P]eople develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence.

” The second one is group interest by which, “institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform”.

This sounds so familiar in Cambodian politics.

But the question is, then, how can we deal with such political decay.

This is no easy task, though not impossible. This would require, first of all, an honest self-education to increase the belief in scientific-evidence-based assessments.

That is, if the people of Cambodia demand liberal democracy, prudent leaders ought to behave accordingly if they wish to remain relevant.

Then, there must also be a mechanism to isolate rotten fish from the good ones in order to pave the way for healthy reforms.

Unless those two conditions are met – belief in evidence and taking tough decisions for reform – those who fail to acknowledge the reality of the current political decay and the need to deal with it will find themselves on the wrong side of history and may perhaps never find a decent way back.

Preap Kol is the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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