Moves to decentralise Cambodia’s government have not fostered democracy or transparency, but instead proven a sleight of hand by the ruling party to maintain its grip on power, a new research paper has argued.
In Decentralization in Cambodia: New Wine in Old Bottles, released last week, Cambodia Development Resource Institute researcher Netra Eng writes that a “lack of capacity” has not been the main problem of decentralisation reforms over the past 15 years.
“Decentralisation is designed and implemented as part of the ruling political party’s strategy to strengthen its grip at the sub-national level rather than as an exercise for improving accountability and democracy,” she said.
She said the reforms, first implemented at the commune level in 2002, gave the government a chance “to replace ageing party officials with a new generation of equally loyal officials who have close links with the development community and the private sector”.
“The rerouting of existing strategies of party control through new decentralised government structures is thus a case of putting old wine in new bottles,” Eng said.
A key factor in the Cambodia People’s Party continued control was that local governments were not granted autonomy over decisions and resources for key public services, such as health or infrastructure.
The CPP then delivers vital rural development projects – such as schools, roads or food – as “gifts” from the rich to the poor, which elicit votes.
In comparing two districts, given pseudonyms in the article, Eng highlighted that when two district governors had equal experience and skills, the one located in a resource-rich area with ties to a CPP business tycoon was deemed more effective at “getting things done”, even though development in that district often led to land conflicts between tycoons and local people.
Further, Eng adds, the government has “immense power” to control or discipline local officials at the expense of their constituents, a point which echoed a report published last month by Eng and academic Sophal Ear in the Journal of Southeast Asian Economies.
But Sak Setha, Interior Ministry secretary of state for decentralisation, rejected Eng’s conclusions.
“[Commune candidates] may be appointed by the party, but they represent the voice of the people,” he said. “Decentralisation is on the right track.”
Affiliated Network for Social Accountability-Cambodia executive director San Chey said while political influence could not be discounted, lack of capacity was still a concern.
“The capacity of the commune should be improved and reviewed – there should be consideration of the quality of the candidates,” he said.