Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was a no-show at the National Assembly yesterday as the ruling CPP passed the 2017 national budget against a slew of objections from the opposition CNRP, which said health and education spending remains too low.
A day earlier, a spokesman had said the CNRP’s acting president planned to leave party headquarters for only the second time since May for the session, which saw the end of a months-long boycott of parliament by the opposition. But Sokha was one of more than a dozen opposition lawmakers absent when the assembly convened to debate next year’s $5 billion budget.
With Prime Minister Hun Sen leaving the session early to fly to Siem Reap to meet the Vietnamese and Laotian prime ministers, 66 of 68 CPP lawmakers present approved the budget, which has been criticised for its lack of detail.
The CNRP had been sitting out of assembly since police attempted to arrest Sokha on May 26, and the group of 40 CNRP lawmakers who turned up yesterday out of the party’s delegation of 55 lawmakers abstained from the vote.
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay told reporters after the vote that the CNRP could not support it because of what it deemed insufficient increases in spending to the Health Ministry (up 19.3 percent on this year) and Education Ministry (up 24.1 percent.)
“For the education sector, we are spending about 2.7 percent of GDP compared to our neighbouring countries [such as] Thailand, which spends about 4.2 percent of GDP, and Vietnam, which spends about 5 percent of GDP,” Chhay said outside the assembly. “Health sector spending is only 1.5 percent of GDP compared to Thailand and Vietnam, which spend 5 to 6 percent of GDP. And we have seen that the quality of the health sector is very poor, creating increasing difficulties for our citizens.”
Chhay said he could not understand the justification for a 22.7 percent increase to the Defence Ministry, given that Cambodia had not been plunged into war in the past year, and that the money could be better spent on more bumps to education and health.
“We have noted that there is a contradictory point from the government’s claims that our country has peace and good relations with neighbouring countries,” he said. “We are spending almost the same as Vietnam, which is having a conflict in the South China Sea.”
Chhay would not say why Sokha, who posted some thoughts on the budget on Facebook in the evening, did not attend the assembly session after a party spokesman had said that he would. Yet Chhay said that he would speak with reporters about the issue today.
While introducing the budget on the floor, Finance Minister Aun Porn Moniroth, who is also a CPP lawmaker, said he believed the large spending increases to the health and education ministries would help boost the country’s youth.
He said that with commune elections coming in June, the budget, with its bumps to education, health and defence – and also to the National Election Committee – showed the government’s priorities.
“The draft law . . . has been prepared to show the efforts of the government and the targets of its political platform, and especially to guarantee macroeconomic regularity for people’s livelihoods and continue the movement of development,” he said.
The budget, he added, was an effort “toward a response to the will and intentions of the citizens, who are voters, and toward speeding up . . . the development of deep reform of the government.”
Chhay’s concerns about the scale of the increases, which were aired during the session by other CNRP lawmakers, were not addressed by any lawmakers from the CPP during the sitting.
The CPP government has, since its narrow escape at the 2013 national election, tried to push an image of aggressively reforming the education sector, which had for decades been beset by corruption and poor training practices that left schools a shambles.
It appointed a former Ministry of Finance secretary of state in Hang Chuon Naron – a quadrilingual technocrat with a reputation as a reformist – as its new education minister, and has since boosted the ministry’s budget significantly each year.
The planned education spending of about $682 million for 2017 is more than double the $335 million given to the ministry in 2014 – the first budget after the election.