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The storm is not over yet

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Though there was a high voter turnout of 82 percent on July 29, there were also valid concerns about the equally high spoilt votes registered throughout the country. KT/Chor Sokunthea

The Cambodian ruling elites were relieved to learn that the voter turnout rate was much higher than expected and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) received an unprecedented victory in the “controversial” 6th parliamentary election.

Though a high voter turnout of 82 percent was touted on July 29, there were also valid concerns about the equally high spoilt votes registered throughout the country. This must be addressed and analysed to get a better understanding as to why there has been such a high percentage of invalid ballots rather than dismissing it as voter ignorance, apathy or the proverbial protest vote.

In addition, the resounding and outright victory of the CPP which shut out all of the remaining 19 parties from the National Assembly also brings with it, a very heavy responsibility. The Cambodian people have spoken and given an overwhelming mandate to the ruling CPP but with a caveat. They voted in a government that would promise them continuity, accountability, stability, and economic prosperity. And they expect all of these to be delivered by the CPP.

With these expectations of the people, the formation of the new government is a critical step towards consolidating public trust in state institutions. The official results of the election will be announced by the National Election Committee on August 15. Prime Minister Hun Sen has asked his legal officials to look into the possibility for a new government to be formed by the end of this month or early September after the NEC announces the official results, so that he can travel to New York to address the UN General Assembly.

It is expected that several new faces will be appointed in the new cabinet and some ministers will be moved to take up different portfolios. Without doubt, the formation of the new cabinet will reflect power dynamics within the winning CPP.

At the domestic level, the post-election situation is calm as there is no sign of protest or people’s uprising against the election results. Apparently everything is under control and ordinary Cambodians continue living their daily lives as normal.

However, the storm is not over yet. The Cambodian people are well informed and their expectations are high. Those that voted for the CPP not only wish to see continuity and certainty but also, most importantly, want concrete and robust reforms implemented.

Everyone knows that corruption and social injustice are some of the key structural issues that the CPP-led government is facing. But there needs to be firm political will and effective interventions to effectively resolve these chronic, cancer-like issues

The new government must clearly show that it is serious about reforming state institutions in order to better deliver public services, reduce corruption, promote social justice, reduce income inequality, promote human rights and democracy, and protect the environment.

Good governance and meritocracy must be the core values of reforms and the new government must set up a systematic and sustainable mechanism to receive feedbacks and monitor the performance of the state institutions. A mid-term review or an annual review of the performance of every individual minister should be carried out in order better assess their performance in office. Of course, to enable these reviews, key performance indicators must be established from the onset.

Past practices of merely transferring publicly shamed inefficient ministers and officials must not recur. The perceived fear of a cabinet reshuffle being viewed as a sign of no confidence in the Government must also be dispelled.

The new government must be bold enough to ask those ministers who do not perform as expected to resign after the mid-term review or annual review. The review process needs to be carried out by both internal and external auditors. Towards this end, professionalism, objectivity, and independence of the auditors are paramount towards ensuring a clean, efficient and transparent government.

The National Assembly, independent state institutions, civil society groups, and media will need to be empowered to closely monitor and evaluate the performance of state institutions. Frequent multi-stakeholder dialogues on governance issues must be encouraged.

Another challenge for the new government will be on the fast-evolving geopolitical front.

The veiled threats that some Western countries have been making on Cambodia stems not from the perceived “degradation of human rights and democracy” but rather that the Kingdom seems to be veering towards becoming a “client state” or “vassal” of China. Without doubt, it is now imperative that the new government clearly and convincingly demonstrate that it adheres to a diversification and hedging strategy.

Building diversified allies, politically, economically and strategically is equally important as over reliance on one giant economy may be fatal if the world order were to shift or if there is a global trade war and Cambodia becomes collateral damage.

If this is not taken into consideration, Cambodia will be under stronger pressure, with the threat of sanctions looming over its head from some Western countries. However, this does not mean that Cambodia must overnight change its foreign policy position under duress from the West. Rather, it should develop ties with more countries near and far that would better serve Cambodia’s long-term national interests.

As a small country, Cambodia cannot afford to rely on any single country for protection and survival. It has to diversify its strategic and economic partners. The future of Cambodia is in the hands of Cambodians themselves. Self-reliance must be further promoted to avert the risks stemming from over-dependency on any single power, be it in the East or West.

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