The ruling Cambodian People’s Party is going “all out" to reform because it recognises that failure to do so would likely see the party lose the next national election in 2018, Minister of Commerce Sun Chanthol has said in a speech to a prestigious US think tank.
The recently appointed minister, who, along with Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron, has been praised by some as a reformist breaking the mould set by his CPP elders, even went as far as to say it was a positive thing that the ruling party had lost seats at last year’s July election.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, on Monday, Chanthol was asked how he could prove that the government, despite still being propped up by international aid, was undertaking serious economic reform.
“Put it this way: Last year, 2013, we had the election. The ruling party lost 22 seats, OK? Before, they had 90 out of 123 seats in the National Assembly and we lost 22 seats.… It was really a wake-up call for the ruling party, so we are going all out to reform,” the minister responded.
After citing specific reforms in his own ministry, the Education Ministry and others, Chanthol continued: “If we don’t reform, [in] 2018 our party might not win. It’s a major wake-up call for us, and it’s a good thing for Cambodia that the CPP, the ruling party, lost some seats.
“It shows that people want change, people want reform and we listen, we listen to the voters.”
When asked how the government could prove it was taking reform seriously, Chanthol again returned to the idea of political survival.
“If you want to win the election in 2018 [and] to be relevant, you stick to your reform agenda. Do it quick, do it fast, or else you will not be there.”
But opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday rejected the idea that the CPP was committed to reforms, describing the party as “corrupt beyond repair”.
“It’s anything but a democratic organisation capable of reforming itself. Because corruption is inherently intrinsic to the functioning of the CPP as it is, any real reform aimed at promoting transparency and curbing corruption would undermine the very foundations of the regime,” he said in an email from Europe.
“Sun Chanthol and some other Western-educated government officials only form the cosmetic but powerless face of the regime, which more and more heavily needs international assistance to cope with its economic failure while maintaining the absolute power of the old guard of a more and more anachronistic and dinosaur-like party.”
Southeast Asia expert Peter Tan Keo, however, said he believed Chanthol was being personally “sincere”.
“In theory, his attitude may be reflective of the wider CPP. They can’t afford another blow at the elections, and I’d hasten to argue that the political cards are halfway stacked against them,” he said. “In practice, however, Minister Sun’s ability to implement widespread reform, working against a ticking clock, is perhaps more reflective of a ‘new’ blood of reformers.”
On Tuesday, UN rights envoy Surya Subedi said the government appeared hesitant to undertake real reforms in response to last year’s watershed election. But Tan Keo said “it’s still too soon to make predictions” about the CPP’s reform commitment given they “are expected to implement sweeping changes in a deep sea of bureaucracy”.
Phoak Kung, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said that he believed the CPP leadership “deeply understands” that it will need to make serious reforms to win in 2018.
He cautioned, however, that “voters should be realistic that they cannot achieve reforms overnight”.