Ten years after their inception, commune councils remain heavily influenced by both party politics and higher levels of government, according to a new report by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).
In a 48-page study released yesterday, Comfrel, an election watchdog, highlights a slew of problems with the decentralisation process, which has been one of the cornerstones of democratic reform over the past two decades.
The study “found little improvement in the decentralisation of politics, administration as well as power sharing and the democratic accountability of selected officials at the grassroots level. Furthermore, it appears nothing has changed regarding financial decentralisation.”
Since 1993, decentralisation has become a key governance strategy and an increasingly popular cause among NGOs and aid agencies, which tout it as a check on a powerful executive branch. Last year, commune council elections were held for the third time since their start in 2002, and the grassroots level of government appears – on the surface – to be stronger and more stable than ever. But the Comfrel report suggests that those at the local level of government, in fact, remain beholden to the upper echeclons.
“The Commune/Sangkats funds and the decision-making of the commune councils remained under influence from political parties, which limited the role, attention and the stability of the mandate of the commune councils in contrast to expectations,” notes the report, which studied the 2007 to 2012 mandate.
Rarely overt, the power plays take clever forms, noted Comfrel. When a development project was put up for bid, officials showed, by way of example, that the decision is entirely “influenced by the provincial authority”.
Ostensibly, the provincial level is allowed only to inspect the bidding contractor, and the commune council gets final say. But frequently, the higher body will announce the bid without consulting commune officials.
“By doing this, it confuses the commune council, as they appear to have lost the power to make the final decision to select the contractor, even though [on paper] the commune council is the agency responsible for the development project.”
More insidiously, notes the report, by underfunding the councils, the state ensures councils remain at the beck and call of their party.
To make up the shortfall: “Each commune chief can seek resources from the outside, in particular from their political party, for development in their commune.”
Calling the claims exaggerated, a senior official at the Secretariat of the National Committee for Democratic Development told the Post that the report appeared to give little sense of what truly went on at the commune level.
“I think the Comfrel report looks from a far distance,” said deputy executive head Ngan Chamroeun.
Development projects do have to be approved by the provincial governor, he said, but the commune council is given carte blanche to make budget decisions and push through their priority projects.
Cautioning that being under inspection from a higher level did not equate to pressure, Chamroeun stressed that “at the national level, the government and the provincial authority do not interfere in their projects”.
“We have done this for more than 10 years so far. We have our process. I did not see that there is political trend to pressure them.”