Can a ‘take responsibility’ culture take hold in Cambodian politics?

British PM and Conservative Party Leader David Cameron makes a speech after winning the Witney constituency during the general election
British PM and Conservative Party Leader David Cameron makes a speech after winning the Witney constituency during the general election last week. AFP

Can a ‘take responsibility’ culture take hold in Cambodian politics?

He began his education when he was 3 years old. By the time he was 13, he had studied most of the ancient and classical works on politics, arithmetic and astronomy. In his most acclaimed essay "On Liberty", published in 1859, he wrote that “[the] appropriate region of human liberty . . . comprises . . . liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects [ . . . ]. No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free.” I’m referring to John Stuart Mill, a member of parliament in England in the 19th century.

Last week, Mill’s compatriots used their liberty to choose those they deem fit to lead. The Conservative Party, which had been the senior partner in the ruling coalition, won 331 seats out of the total 650 seats, to earn the right to rule alone. Coincidentally, the CPP also won six seats more than half. Both the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Cambodia apply the Constitutional Monarchy system by which both crowns do not directly govern but leave such power primarily to the executive. UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen have exclusive right in appointing ministers as well as all the other high-ranking officials. Their governments also oversee the appointment process of judges in one way or another. The collective responsibility by the executive to the Parliament in both countries is equally blurred as all the British ministers are by practice members of parliament while important Cambodian ministers keep their parliamentary seats. At a glance, therefore, these two democracies look very alike. But when one studies them a bit more closely, any supposed similarities quickly begin to disappear.

First, politicians in the UK are used to taking responsibility, come what may. Taking responsibility is a British way of political life. Last Friday night, for instance, the outspoken leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband resigned from his position as leader of the Labour Party within hours after his party had failed to win the elections. Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats Party, which had been the junior partner in the ruling coalition, also resigned after his party had suffered the biggest defeat in its history. While politics certainly differs from one country to another, the courage in taking full responsibility like the British leaders have shown, ought to be a general rule. However, such rule has never been applied in Cambodia in the last two decades.

The second sharpest difference between the two kingdoms, furthermore, resides in the performance of members of parliament, both in the legislative process and the exercise of the oversight role over governmental affairs. In the UK, the average salary of a member of parliament is only about three times higher than that of a civil servant, whereas a Cambodian MP earns about 20 times more than an average civil servant.

One would expect that this high salary should lead to high performance. British MPs initiate bills and get them passed as laws. In Cambodia, there usually are years in which Cambodian MPs have introduced zero bills, effectively and practically giving the power to the executive to legislate at will.

While it is understandable that MPs of the ruling party like to depend on their colleagues in the government to draft the majority of bills, the opposition MPs should not enjoy such understanding. In the UK, every MP is engaged in writing draft-laws known as Private Members’ Bills. Due to the volume of such bills, MPs even have to compete with each other in order to have their bills on the priority list.

In 2014, only 20 MPs from all the three major parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats – were successful in putting their bills on the legislative business. On the other hand, the opposition leader, Miliband, also remained in the country throughout the years to very actively assume his oversight role on the conduct of governmental affairs. This is because a culture of dialogue actually happens when there are real differences in ideas and policies to entertain and debate.

Though without a written Constitution, like in Cambodia, the UK Parliament never misses out on the Prime Minister’s Questions time every Wednesday, shortly after noon when the prime minister is grilled with questions from MPs, which, in all practicality, serves as the most active platform for dialogue. A similar mechanism is enshrined in Article 96 in our Constitution but has not been faithfully applied.

More than a 150 years ago, in defending the right to free speech without censorship, John Stuart Mill expounded that “however positive anyone’s persuasion may be . . . yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment . . . he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility.” Put simply, a person who does not allow criticism or does not allow defence of an idea must believe that he alone can never be mistaken about anything.

We need not study as hard as Mill did, but we can readily answer these difficult questions: Is there in Cambodia a fully responsible politician? Is there any such infallible person? When can Cambodian politicians create a culture of taking responsibility?

Preap Kol is the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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