How to measure democratic success?

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With its 500 million inhabitants, the European Union (EU) has threatened to cancel its tax incentives to 16 million Cambodians and put the livelihood of about 3 million into risk. Is this democratic and humanitarian?

The reason invoked is due to the shortcomings of protecting human rights and democracy. At the same time, the European Union has signed a free trade agreement with a communist country that ranks behind Cambodia in terms of fundamental freedoms. The European Union therefore places its interests above the values it claims to promote.

This is a clear practice of double standards. Human rights and democracy have been used to only pressure or punish those countries that do not provide significant benefits to or have economic leverage on the EU.

Talking about democracy, the EU is facing rising populist politics and extreme right-wing political wave. Such trend is dangerous to humanity. Why does the EU go down this road? The main reasons are the lack of social cohesiveness and harmony, inequal or unbalanced development, and toxic political environment.

Worried by the population explosion of humanity, uncontrolled immigration, unemployment, insecurity, the destruction of the environment, the impact of new technologies, preoccupied by the unknowns of transhumanism, millions of voters call for the fulfillment of electoral promises and more effective governance.

The old political class disqualified in the eyes of a growing number of voters, the latter are more likely to give their vote to the only new political offer: the populist candidates. But if populism answers their demand for authority, it is only apparent, and it does not respond to their demand for efficiency. There is no miracle populist economic recipe. National central banks are starting to complain about the negative effects of populism.

The European institutions do not play their role of democratic control. Worse, by continuing to pay their financial windfall to these odious regimes, they encourage democratic deviations, xenophobic discourse, the failures of authoritarianism and mismanagement of public affairs. And it is not by activating Article 7 of the EU Supreme Law that Poland and Hungary will change. Unanimity required, would Hungary vote against Poland and Poland against Hungary?

French-Cambodian Sam Rainsy raves with the word democracy. But what democracy is he talking about? Is it the American model that embraces transactional politics, xenophobia, protectionism, and unilateralism? The departure of the US from the UN Human Rights Council and the Paris agreement on climate change, and the rejection of multilateral institutions that have contributed to global peace and development over the past 7 decades is not something that we should admire.

Does Sam Rainsy follow a Turkish democracy with his purges? A Polish who censures? A Hungarian or a Brazilian democracy? Or in the European version of free trade without no condition with communism and the death penalty? Or perhaps he finds humanistic virtues in the Nicaraguan or Venezuelan democracies?

Does Sam Rainsy follow Italian democracy as a far-right populist model? Or does he want a nightmarish parliamentary democracy of the United Kingdom type on the verge of explosion? Or a democracy based on the ideas of the Belgian Reform Movement? Or the Austrian far-right? Or on the Dutch Democrat 66? Or the Spanish Ciudadanos? Other possibilities the democracies of Central Asia or the exemplary democracies of Central and South America?

Sam Rainsy’s repeated calls for sedition, insurrection, civil disobedience, popular uprising, rebellion of the army, revolt, dissent, rebellion, insubordination, civil war, coup, mutiny, and subversion are not democratic moves. What type of democracy does Sam Rainsy pursue?

How to measure democratic success? Simple indicator here is the measurement of socio-economic progress. It is absurd to talk about democracy independent of the overall economic development of a society.

Economic development is the precondition for the promotion and protection of democracy.

Let do a reality check here. Cambodians have enjoyed fundamental freedoms, the right to peace and development, and the right to participate in decision making through national and local elections, civic engagement, and media.

With an average growth rate of economic development of 7% over the past two decades, the livelihood and socio-economic wellbeing have been improved substantially. The poverty rate has dropped to below 10 percent.

Cambodia has achieved most of the MDGs ahead of schedule. Its Human Development Index rose substantially in the last decades, placing it in the medium human development category and making it the eighth best performing country globally over this period.

Between 1990 and 2017, life expectancy at birth increased by almost 16 years, from 53.6 years to 69.3. Cambodia recorded sharp declines in child and maternal mortality and noticeable declines in deaths due to HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Access to primary schooling is now almost universal with enrolment rates in primary school at almost 100 percent for both boys and girls. The Gini Coefficient Index also decreased over the period 2004-2014.

Cambodia’s process of localizing its SDGs is completed with its 18 goals, including one unique national goal on mine action. The national policy framework for sustainable development as reflected in the Rectangular Strategy-Phase IV is made operational in the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) 2019–2023.

In translating the “leave no-one behind” commitments into policies and actions, Cambodia has adopted the National Social Protection Policy Framework (2016-2025) was a milestone that illustrates the great importance that my government places on social protection. Other concrete policies were put into place such as a national health insurance, inclusive of maternity and sickness benefits and a contributory pension for private sector workers beginning this year.

The economic success of Cambodia cannot be detached from the support from the international community such as the EU, which has provided significant support to the foundations of growth. The EU should continue to play an active role in helping Cambodia to realize the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Removing the Everything-but-Arms (EBA) will seriously affect the livelihood of millions of Cambodians.

Bopha Phat is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.

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