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Politics matters to deliver reforms

Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen speaks at the opening ceremony of the 16th Asia Media Summit in Siem Reap province, Cambodia, June 12, 2019. (Xinhua/Sovannara)

Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that the withdrawal of the Kingdom’s access to EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme is not a big concern. He said the key concern was the inability of his officials in carrying out their assigned tasks.

Before we proceed with the issue of inability which is linked to inefficiency which in turn is linked to incompetency, let us look at the definition and meaning of politics.

Politics generally refers to the art of political administration, the development of policy design, and the implementation of reforms to achieve policy objectives. Political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli define politics as means to get and maintain political power.

The above description may best describe Cambodian politics, especially with regards to power politics. In terms of institutional reforms, it is grinding to a halt because of a plethora of reasons, including the politics of patronage and a relatively weak public institution.

The “Little Napoleons” at the national and sub-national levels are still actively involved in politics of patronage, which pose considerable constraints to effective institutional reforms.

While acknowledging the sacrifices and contributions of the old generation for the liberation of the country from the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime and the post-conflict national reconstruction, we should not lose sight of the fact that transformative leadership is required to address and respond to new challenges and realities.

The transitional generation of leadership, aged between 50s to 60s, has big ideas to transform the country and play a bridging role between the pioneer generation and the future generation of leadership. However, the power base of this bridging generation remains limited due to hierarchical power structure and again, politics of patronage.

The next generation of leadership, aged between 30s and 40s, is more open to new ideas. This generation of leaders define the future of the country as they are more willing to adopt a progressive and liberal reform agenda. Some of the leaders from this generation have shown credible leadership capacity to move the country forward.

There is a stark difference between Cambodia and its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, when it comes to political narrative and communication. Vietnam and Thailand focus more the future rather than the past. Cambodia seems to be stuck in a time warp with the same narrative of yesterday.

The Cambodian leaders across generations should better focus on the future rather than the past. If the outdated political style and leadership is allowed to dominate the political narrative and the power landscape, the future of Cambodia will be bleak.

Some of the young leaders, who are used to the habits and practices of their pioneers, will become a spoilt generation. Hence the bridging generation has a critical role to play to ensure that the future generation will inherit only good practices of the pioneer generation.

Local think tankers have warned that without transformative leadership and clear, effective reforms, Cambodia will not be able to realize it aspired vision to become a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050.

Among the factors which have left the reform agenda falling short, if not unfulfilled, is the current state of the legislature, instead of having an efficient and lean civil service, we are seeing bloated ministries with some having over a dozen secretaries of state with equal number of undersecretaries of state, resulting in each of them being reduced to a mere “supervisor” of ministerial departments rather than policy implementers.

Ambassador Pou Sothirak, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), said way back in 2014 that the ruling elites must undertake swift, deep and far reaching reforms to convince the electorate of its capacity and capability to govern beyond 2018.

Reforms then, as it is now, is somewhat overdue and this may as then, still remain as a tipping point against the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the local election in 2022 and the general election in 2023.

With an absolute power after the general election in 2018, the ruling CPP should be more assertive in reforms. Institutional surgery should become a common standard of operation in public sector reform.

If the incumbent government cannot deliver concrete results of reforms in this 6th legislature, the legitimacy and credibility of the ruling CPP will be at stake in the next elections.

The prevalent mindset and attitude that “if there is nothing wrong there is no need to fix” is short-sighted. It is also a mere perception that everything is fine, rosy and hunky dory. This seriously needs to be changed as quickly as possible.

Changing leadership style and attitudes is the foundation of the reform success. Leaders from different generations must be more adaptive to changes.

The government by the people and for the people should not only be a political slogan but a concrete action on the ground.

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