The Council of Ministers on Friday approved a national budget for next year that calls for more than $6 billion in spending, the largest increase ever proposed for the Kingdom, with big boosts for education, defence and the arts.
In an executive summary of the draft law released on Friday, the Council of Ministers proposes raising the budget by nearly $1 billion, stating that the budget increases are necessary to run the Senate and national elections next year and to improve the economy.
“The royal government must ensure both elections will be smooth, orderly, correct, free and fair,” the statement read.
In addition, the money is also needed “to ensure defence, peace and social stability” in order to prevent “any tricks and any kinds of attempts to make the country fall into chaos and instability”.
The proposal will go to the National Assembly by the end of the week – the second time in as many years that the legislative body is forced to decide the budget amid significant political turmoil.
Cambodia National Rescue Party President Party President Kem Sokha is currently in pretrial detention on “treason” charges, while Prime Minister Hun Sen has alleged the party as a whole is involved in a plot to topple the CPP-led government.
Last year, the CPP-controlled National Assembly voted in favour of a $5 billion budget for 2017 in the absence of CNRP lawmakers, who boycotted in protest of a number of politically charged legal cases against their colleagues.
If the proposal is accepted, the Ministry of Education will see the single biggest funding boost, of roughly $167 million, or 24 percent. The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Health are also set to receive sizeable increases of 17 and 15 percent, respectively, or $80 million and $63 million.
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts would see the single largest percentage increase, more than doubling from $20 million this year to a proposed budget of $47 million.
Reached yesterday, CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann said he had not yet seen the full budget but $6 billion seemed to be “too much”. He said the focus of the budget-makers should be on increasing funding transparency and boosting education.
“To stay within budget, we suggest more transparency,” Monyvann said. “[For example], before approving any government projects, please have public bidding.”
Cambodia’s budget process has been criticised in the past by good governance NGOs, such as International Budget Partners (IBP), for lacking detail and transparency. Since 2015, however, the process has improved, according to IBP’s metrics, with year-end reports now produced for internal use and audits made available to the public, among other reforms. Nonetheless, full budget proposals are typically not made public before passage of the law.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the budget hikes were justified, pointing to needs in the education sector and for recruitment of the armed forces.
“We need it,” Siphan said. “If we didn’t need it, why would we increase it?”
San Chey, head of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability Cambodia, expressed concern that the budget process is moving too quickly in an uncertain political climate, with NGOs and lawmakers lacking the opportunity for input.
“The tense political situation impedes the opposition party from having the opportunity to check and evaluate 2018 national budgets,” Chey said.
According to the Council of Ministers, the budget will also fund several initiatives announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen in recent speeches – including pledges to fund salary increases for civil servants, pregnancy care for garment workers and tax breaks for people who earn less than $300 per month.
The council did not explain how much the government is budgeting for those initiatives.
Siphan said more detailed questions about the budget would have to wait until the full proposal is sent to the National Assembly for debate. Instead of having the chance to give their input directly, NGOs can try to persuade assembly representatives, he said.
“They could voice their opinion on what they want and what they don’t agree with to the National Assembly,” he said.