Christmas has come and gone, but Prime Minister Hun Sen has seemingly only just begun handing out presents.
In a recent flurry of announcements, some explicitly characterised as gifts, the premier has softened strict new traffic laws, scrapped a pair of unpopular toll road fees and done away with a tax on inherited property.
Each “gift” was granted by fiat in a highly public manner and – according to multiple analysts interviewed this week – made with an eye firmly on the upcoming commune and National Assembly elections in 2017 and 2018.
“We are already in the pre-election campaign, there’s no doubt about that at all,” said political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak.
“But this is something new, this direct link from the prime minister to the people; it’s not through the normal ministry channels; it is a personal response.”
While personality, politics and public administration have long been conflated by the Kingdom’s long-time leader, the recent largess is taking on a new dimension, as his announcements are increasingly channelled through social media as Cambodia’s political battle shifts online.
“The ruling party campaign, like 2013, will again be based on the popularity of the prime minister but this time, all this has started earlier,” said Serei Sopheak.
However, the moves beg the question of whether key areas of national need, including road safety and a still-woefully inadequate tax base, are being sacrificed on the altar of short-term popularity.
For example, Prime Minister Hun Sen last week scrapped the need for drivers with a motorbike of 125cc or under to have a licence – despite the fact that 71 per cent of road deaths in the Kingdom involve motorbike drivers, according to the World Health Organization.
That decision, called a “January 7 gift” for the people, was sparked by the online backlash to enforcement of the new Traffic Code, with social media users complaining the permit process was costly and corrupt.
While hailing the government’s strengthened legislation, which carries tougher fines for infractions, Global Road Safety Partnership manager of global advocacy Dave Elseroad called moves to neuter the new law “deeply worrying”.
“The prime minister’s ‘gift to the people’ should be to save as many lives as possible on Cambodia’s roads,” Elseroad said.
Meanwhile, on Monday, a decision to scrap the 4 per cent tax on land bequests to family members was made to “solve problems for people”, Hun Sen announced on Facebook.
A similar executive decision to bring private toll road Veng Sreng Boulevard under government control – followed this week by the scrapping of toll fees on National Road 4 – also came on the heels of online criticism.
Though popular with motorists, the Veng Sreng decision left the government on the hook for the cost of road renovations undertaken by the company given the concession to operate the toll way.
“Gift-giving by ‘meritorious benefactors’ has always been a central part of Cambodian politics,” said Hun Sen’s Cambodia author Sebastian Strangio, who also noted the CPP’s use of Facebook to gauge feedback and show it was sensitive to people’s needs.
“As with his school openings and distributions of charity, Hun Sen is trying to send the message that despite its electoral setbacks in 2013, the CPP is being responsive to the needs of the people and remains the only possible guarantor of stability and economic betterment. Whether the Cambodian people are buying this old message, of course, is another question entirely.”
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University, agreed, saying via email that the recent moves only served to reinforce “the sultanistic form of rule that has come to characterize Cambodia under Hun Sen”.
At its congress earlier this month, the Cambodian’s People’s Party emphasised the need to strengthen efforts, from the village level up, to counter the “propaganda” of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which enjoyed a surge at the 2013 polls.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, currently living abroad to avoid charges many consider politically motivated, argued the CPP’s approach was “personal, piecemeal, shortsighted and populist” and “contrary to the rule of law and good governance”, and would not sway an increasingly educated populace.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said the government, which has also raised the garment sector’s minimum wage to $140 this year and promised salary raises for civil servants – both key elements of the opposition’s 2013 election campaign platform – was simply doing its job.
“It’s the job of the government to satisfy the people,” he said.
Political analyst Markus Karbaum said the premier’s recent charm offensive did little more than deflect attention from reform bottlenecks in sectors such as land management, education and agriculture.
“There is much more to do than some minor concessions within traffic and transportation,” Karbaum said, via email.
“In addition, by preserving the status quo there is absolutely no improvement for the people.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a diplomat based in Cambodia said via email that while it was in the nature of politics to please one’s constituency and “get things done”, the premier’s recent moves could backfire, both generally and in terms of improving road safety and collecting taxes.
“I am afraid that these measures will create ever growing expectations of the general public for such ‘gifts’, expectations, which eventually cannot be met any longer – with potentially dire consequences.”