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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Funcinpec's evaporating mandate

Funcinpec's evaporating mandate

John C Brown wonders why the party doesn't redefine the rules of current

politics in Phnom Penh's corridors of power.

Dr Milton Osborne, the noted

South-East Asian Historian, visited Phnom Penh recently - and for the first time

since 1981. His summary observation: "everything seems to be on hold. It is as

if everyone is waiting for something to happen."

The state of law-making

in Cambodia indicates this as well as anything. The United Nations departed over

four months ago. The National Assembly's next session begins in the first week

of April, and other than the budget, only one law, the investment law, has been

accepted by the Council of Ministers for the Assembly's consideration. No press

law has been accepted, no penal code, no criminal procedure code, no immigration

law, no citizenship law, and no property law.

The perception of lack of

policy movement is also shared by the Cambodian people, and their disappointment

is deep. The Funcinpec party promised change and won a mandate for it in the UN

sponsored elections. That promise has yet to be made concrete and the Cambodian

people know it.

The former ruling party, the Cambodian People's Party,

retains overwhelming power. While this makes Funcinpec's failure more

understandable, it does not answer the question: why no policy movement at all?

Three hypotheses are plausible: lack of money, uncertainty about King Sihanouk,

and the lack of a clear plan and priorities from Funcinpec.

Lack of

concrete change may be stunted by a lack of cash. Cambodians tend to connect the

incidence of corruption to low government salaries. The success of the ICORC

international donors' in Tokyo may help to alleviate this problem, and remove

this obstacle.

Two weeks ago, King Sihanouk made his burial wishes

public. Many in Phnom Penh look to his passing with great

trepidation.

Certainly, the King now plays an essential role as the

mediator between the two major parties. The prospect of Cambodian politics

without such a mediator is an ominous one indeed and uncertainty about a

post-Sinhanouk future could explain the stagnation among policy makers.

Ironically the problem of a lack of law may be felt most acutely during

the succession. Cambodia's throne is elective, not strictly hereditary. The

Constitution created the Throne Council which will elect the next King, but the

rules for its functioning are so far unknown. That organic law, like so many

others, has not yet been written.

The slow progress toward creating a

legal structure is attributed by some to the lack of clear Funcinpec policies,

the absence of party unity and to weak leadership.

The policy stalemate

is already damaging Funcinpec's political standing. One UN human rights observer

hypothesized that if the elections were held now, Funcinpec would not get more

than 20 percent of the vote.

But for both parties continued stalemate is

risky. The lack of property law is only the most obvious danger. The question of

ownership is now the most potentially explosive issue in Cambodia. With no law,

no regularized institutions for the settlement of land or any other disputes,

and with endemic corruption among community leaders, the potential for

resentment and violence is huge.

Despite having a majority in the

National Assembly, Funcinpec faces the fact that the government apparatus, for

the most part, is still controlled by the CPP.

Both parties have

favoured playing politics in a backroom closed-door style, with decision-making

left in the hands of a few leading figures.

Lack of public dissension

has produced the appearance of governmental stability, but the price for

Funcinpec of the apparent calm is being seen to constantly gravitate to the

CPP's preferred position.

Funcinpec has not created a unified party

position distinct from the status-quo commitments of the CPP which it can take

to the public. In this way Funcinpec is failing to use its greatest advantage,

its public mandate, and is continuing to lose ground by playing politics by

CPP's rules. With its long-term survival at stake, and with the losses it is

already sustaining, it is difficult to understand why the party does not

redefine the rules of the game, which it seems so far to be losing.

Sam

Rainsy is the Funcinpec exception that proves the rule. As Finance Minister he

quickly assumed a very high profile and won international support as he pushed

for finance and budget reforms in the face of increasingly tough opposition. His

policy reforms are the sharp exception to the politics of stalemate, and the

forces in favour of the status-quo reacted against him using the language of

national interest.

Prince Ranariddh, First Prime Minister and Funcinpec

leader, publicly scolded Rainsy and accused him of demagoguery after failing to

persuade the King to fire the crusading Finance Minister.

This

reigning-in of the most dynamic and initiative oriented public servant on the

political scene only confirms the wider influence of forces of stagnation and

the status-quo.

The greatest threat to the status quo is the King's

health. Should the country lose its great arbitrator, to whom will Funcinpec

turn to mediate the conflicts that will continue to arise?

Funcinpec may

find that turning to the Cambodian people, who gave the party its mandate to

rule, is the only viable option.

This will make decision-making more

transparent, and more participatory - and more difficult and risky, as the

Olympic Market dispute has shown - but with Funcinpec's survival perhaps at

stake and no end so far to policy stalemate, there may be little choice.

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