Several cabinet ministers in Cambodia have been in their posts for a good 27 years. Some were appointed as co-minister’s way back in 1993 and remain in their positions today, albeit minus to co.
Prime Minister Hun Sen took the bold step of appointing young ministers after the general election in 2013. Relatively young ministers were appointed in the ministry of education, environment, economy and finance, and a few other state agencies such as the general department of taxation.
Deep reforms have been introduced. However, the outcomes and impacts remain limited as some underperforming ministers who were publicly chastised by the premier in the past, were subsequently moved from one ministry to another or from one department to another.
Others, instead of being retired, pleaded or asked for one last shot at power and pomp and a new ministry was even created to accommodate one of these ministers who has probably reached retirement age.
Since 1998, Prime Minister Hun Sen was allergic to cabinet reshuffles, especially when he tried to manage a coalition government together with FUNCINPEC party. Now that he governs alone, the allergy and reluctance continue, as he simply cannot drop people from the cabinet, mainly because of the consideration of internal unity with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and loyalty during the resistance days that led to the overthrow of the genocidal regime and so forth.
But these allegiance and patronisation need to stop somewhere and 2020 could be a good time to start by reshuffling the cabinet, get rid of dead wood, appoint young technocrats who have been waiting patiently in the wings and, one wonders for how much longer, and also set key performance indicators for these new appointees.
One example of KPI proving fruitful was the appointment of current Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn, who has effectively reformed the ministry through the introduction of meritocracy and capacity building.
Party and government insiders said in private that Minister Prak Sokhonn was set some key directives by the premier and the minister in turn, set performance indicators to recruit and promote staff. As a result, professionalism of the staff has improved over the past three years and the ministry as a whole, managed to achieve some outstanding results.
Despite the potential for win-win alliances between the first generation and second generation of leadership, the speed of power transition is slow. The first generation of leaders need to get ready and pave the way for the next generation of leaders and they can be the mentors for the second generation of leaders.
The new generation of leaders can help improve public trust and confidence in the CPP because the commune election will take place in 2022 and the general election in 2023.
Cambodia has the youngest population in Southeast Asia with about 59 percent aged under 30. The young people have higher expectations. They tend to have higher aspirations and ideals to try to make a difference.
Constant reforms and adaptation to changes is a matter of survival for any political party. The second generation of leaders can adapt better to changes and build institutions, not personality cults, to address national issues.
Political polemics aside, more often than not, young people are overlooked or ignored for Cabinet portfolios unless they have the “pull factor” or the lobbyist who will rely on more of the same to secure positions for these young politicians.
Why is that bound to be so and likely happen in Cambodia? Politics is typically regarded as a space for politically experienced men and women who are often disadvantaged in accumulating experience to run for office. Young leaders are systematically marginalised because of their age, limited opportunities and perceived lack of experience.
The presence of young leaders in decision-making positions benefits all citizens and not just the youth. The Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) reports that people between the ages of 20 and 44 make up 57 percent of the worlds voting age population but only 26 percent of the world’s members of parliament (MPs). Young people under 30 represent 1.9 percent of the world’s MPs and more than 80 percent of the world’s upper houses of parliament have no MPs aged under 30.
Democracy functions when everybody participates in the decision-making process. Currently, seniors or party elders are responsible for driving nation-building initiatives. The young leaders must be enabled and empowered to fully participate in this.
In the Cambodian context, if the young people are not encouraged to debate, present and deliberate on current issues, in most cases they will be left behind – and when older leaders pass on, the vacancy does not fall to a younger aspiring and even qualified candidates, it falls to another first generation leader, thus creating a vacuum for the young leaders to step into the shoes of the elders.
The elders should know when to step aside and offer to become mentors to the young leaders, instead of clinging onto power because of political patrons. Human beings tend to be corrupted by power and wealth. Only strong institutions and mechanisms can limit human such human frailties.