Cambodian politics: Art of the unexpected and yet predictable

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Prime Minister Hun Sen’s appointment in the 6th mandate was confirmed by His Majesty King Sihamoni (left). KT/Chor Sokunthea

With the prime minister already approved by His Majesty the King, what remains to be done is the formality of convening the 6th mandate of the National Assembly.

What is more intriguing is the silence and numerous speculations surrounding the appointment of lawmakers or party members (and not necessarily lawmakers in some cases) to the cabinet which has a rather high responsibility in every aspect, to live up to the total unequivocal trust given to them by the voters, whether by default or in reality.

The final tally announced by the National Election Committee speaks for itself and was a foregone conclusion. The failure of the NEC to vehemently denounce the unofficial results tallied by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to the mass media, thus nullifying the role and authority of the NEC is a poignant point to note and not to be repeated.

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The NEC has its laws and it has to behave transparently as an independent body and show it is not subservient to any quarter except the constitution and the King. This it tried to do, but feebly and this lead to accusations that the NEC equates to the CPP and the party is in full control of the election commission. In actuality, this is a far-fetched claim. But the NEC’s inability to denounce the CPP spokesman added credence to this mockery.

Having said that, let’s move back to the topic at hand – the cabinet for the 6th mandate to be established on September 6, in time for the first scheduled official cabinet meeting the next day, September 7.

On this aspect, irrespective of who the members are, there are some fundamentals which need to be taken into careful consideration and one which warrants serious internal debate, within the ruling CPP as well as the soon-to-be-formed cabinet.

The cabinet and prime minister have talked about economic transformation which would lead to the upgrading of skills in the vocational sector to enable the economy and the country to move a step up in its industrial and manufacturing base from mass unskilled and semi-skilled (lowly skilled) labour to mid-level skills such as assembly plants and manufacturing of high tech components – if not just assembling them for exports.

The upgrading of the skills level will play a critical role in sustaining Cambodia’s economic drive and maintain its steady 6 to 8 percent growth momentum. However, embarking on the upgrading of industrial skills requires more than just political will and well prepared policies. These processes are a lot more difficult than kick starting the economy after the end of the civil war in the country.

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The marvelous achievements attained after the end of the civil war is remarkable and should not be belittled as it was no easy task. However, the transformation and transition of the national economy into a skills based middle income economy is much harder and possesses significant threats and challenges.

If the system is ossified even before the work has even begun to move on the economic transformation platform, Cambodia could face the possibility of what Russia faced, but with a difference as Russia has oil and Cambodia is still grappling to get oil off the ground.

On the cabinet list, after numerous speculations of drastic changes, it now appears quite inevitable that it would be business as usual for the 6th mandate’s cabinet – “old wine in an old bottle” – as highly placed sources have indicated. Unfortunately, up to 90 percent of the existing cabinet members may remain, albeit with some moved around in portfolios.

This is not what the public and advocates for change within the party and the cabinet and the infusion of young blood may have wanted or even expected but the prime minister, as shrewd as he is, would have probably decided that the 5th mandate’s cabinet had worked hard enough to deliver a total victory with CPP grabbing all 125 seats in the National Assembly.

It is to be expected that there will be disappointments amongst the young Turks and those who had been lobbying hard to be in the new cabinet.

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A second possible scenario, which is highly probable than the 90 percent of cabinet members carrying on into the 6th mandate is the strong possibility of midterm reviews, based on the key performance indicators, for cabinet ministers. This will be used to measure their performance and form the basis for a mid-term reshuffle. The results of the mid-term review would be used by the prime minister to put the government and the party back on the right footing with a balance between old and new blood as the party and government face the 2022 commune elections and the 2023 general election. Immense challenges will present themselves in 2022 and 2023 and the party cannot afford to gamble with non-performing cabinet members, when they want to hit the hustings to win the hearts and minds of a discerning electorate.

Thus for the moment it appears to be “old wine in an old bottle” with a fear by some that the old wine has been kept in the old bottle too long so much so that it may have become vinegar.

Light hearted banter aside, the people would not put up with business as usual in the 6th mandate as the voters who put all 125 seats in the CPP’s hands, can also just as easily, take it away from them. The legitimacy of the new government will be under tighter scrutiny if reforms do not meet the aspirations of the people. Performance legitimacy will be challenged if fresh ideas are not injected into the governance system.

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