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What Pelosi can teach her Cambodian counterpart

Dalai Lama, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama speaks alongside US Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi following meetings at the US Capitol in Washington on July 7, 2011. AFP

What Pelosi can teach her Cambodian counterpart

Minority is a necessary element in a pluralistic democracy. In the parliamentary UK and the presidential US, effective minority groups help to provide the needed checks and balances to avoid abuses of power by the majority. Majoritarian tyranny is as bad as any other types of tyranny, if not worse.

The British model of shadow government is an established constitutional tradition by which the opposition is empowered to regularly and efficiently hold the party in power to account. At mid-day every Wednesday, the British Prime Minister must personally answer questions posed by the opposition and, quite often, even those by his own party’s MPs.

In the US, the head of the Executive is much more fortunate. Being directly elected by the people, the president is normally not answerable to Congress. But if his party is reduced to being the minority in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, he must learn to make compromises on almost anything.

This is precisely the current working environment where veteran Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, as minority leader in the House of Representatives, is coming from.

On her trip to Cambodia this week in that capacity, Pelosi looks really excited to exchange ideas with Cambodia’s new minority leader. One would reasonably expect she would eagerly tell her counterpart to learn from the American way of working with the majority, especially on key legislations. She certainly has abundant examples in which her minority party has made significant contributions that the Cambodian counterpart must acknowledge and, where necessary, shall make resounding promises for doing the same.

But making eloquent promises and having the courage to actually deliver them are two separate issues as far as Cambodia’s recent political landscape is concerned. They have seemed to be mutually exclusive. Immediately following the much debated elections in 2013, the now-opposition made loud populist promises to deeply reform the electoral system, to make it better; and their supporters bought into it.

After one full year of boycotting, another eight months of negotiations followed their taking of their seats; however, the minority made one compromise after another and, after many working sessions with civil society organisations (CSOs), forged a surprising political deal with the ruling party to deprive CSOs from the fundamental freedom of expression, in fact, to even criminalise civic duties traditionally performed by CSOs. This bi-partisan act is in direct violation of the resolution of the 68th Session UN General Assembly in December 2013, which strongly calls for all governments to encourage active and full participation by CSOs in the electoral process.

Madam Pelosi might, of course, feel some sympathy toward the weakness of this infant minority. But what has been greatly worrying is the fact that this minority has adamantly defended the deal as if CSOs had never existed and had no place in the political process. To them, pluralistic democracy strictly means party politics minus the interest groups. The congresswoman should remind them that the biggest political transformation in the US history that led to the adoption of the famous Civil Rights Act in 1964 was brought about by civil rights groups, not political parties.

Within this political context, a meaningful conversation with the minority should highlight at least three factors. First, a clear reminder that any intention to heed Machiavelli’s advice on the need to not keep promises that are no longer beneficial often proves disastrous in the long-run.

Secondly, a strong minority isn’t one that takes pride in creating early noise when it fits them. A strong and healthy minority should, on the contrary, be one that is guided by unselfish democratic principles especially, and even when, adhering to them may seem politically unbeneficial. The focus should be on laying the foundation for a minority system that is able to stand the repeated tests of time and not one that only makes quick fixes.

Thirdly, opposition does not mean blindly opposing the majority on every issue. Instead, an effective opposition should take advantage of their being relatively free to thoroughly work on drafting piece after piece of legislations to ensure the welfare for the public and defend social justice for those often neglected. In summary, a meaningful minority is one that can work for the benefits of the ordinary people they are elected to serve.

Preap Kol is Executive Director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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