Mr Prime Minister – No old wine in a new bottle, please

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The Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) received an outright majority in the July 29 election. KT/Mai Vireak

As Prime Minister Hun Sen moves with remarkable speed and determination to establish the new cabinet of the 6th mandate of Royal Government, with the first cabinet meeting to be called on September 7, the line up of the cabinet itself is shrouded in secrecy.

The grapevine is abound with speculations that there will be some drastic movements of senior ministers from one ministry to another such as Interior, Land Management, Finance, Education, Council of Ministers, Agriculture, Environment, Mines and Industry.

More young faces are expected to be thrown into the mix with key indicators on their performances, with the aim to inject fresh ideas and to improve public confidence in state institutions. But some old hands are expected to remain at least until mid-term to bring stability and smoothen the transition to the new cabinet.

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Irrespective of whether these speculations turn out to be spot on or otherwise, one thing must be conveyed to the prime minister. The Cambodian people and the diplomatic community, who have largely accepted the election results, do not wish to see “old wine in a new bottle”. Concrete and robust reforms must be implemented otherwise the legitimacy of the new cabinet will fade away. When that legitimacy goes, international pressure in the form of sanctions could be hanging like a Damocles Sword over Cambodia’s head.

People want, expect and demand structural changes and a new leadership style to be more transformative and innovative. The new cabinet cannot carry on with their responsibilities, new or old, in the old manner and it cannot be business as usual. New ministers should be given leverage and latitude to bring in their own key people, not family members but technocrats and experts with them to achieve their key performance indicators. For too long, in this country, nepotism has hindered bureaucratic capacity and governance reforms.

The old ministers, the elders (if it is a more respectful way of categorizing them) should be there to mentor the younger ministers and then retire and fade away from the ministerial and executive scene to just concentrate on party work to ensure that the CPP brings about change from the top to the very bottom. It’s at the grassroots that the CPP’s bastion of power lies and all efforts must be made to reconnect with them.

In reality, some cabinet members, with ranks of senior ministers and advisors have been in the same position for a good 20 years and have been chugging along with their work but with no clear future objectives and plans. They, instead, wait for top down instructions and are hesitant to initiate action on their own. This often results in the public trying to avoid these ministries and seeking alternatives instead, which often defeats the public service mantra that the government is trying to promote.

It is expected the time tested Rectangular Strategy will continue to be the main objective of the 6th mandate. However, there should be a careful examination of some of the key priority areas that affect rural constituents. Any failure to implement policies at the grassroots level could lead to a backlash in 2022 and 2023.

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It should not be business as usual, not only for the cabinet but also for the ‘little Napoleons’ (a term we have used repeatedly) at the grassroots level. The ‘little Napoleons’ through their arrogant actions often hurt and destroy the overall goodwill, support and credibility at the district and commune levels. Quite clearly, if such behavior spirals out of control, it will be counterproductive to the government’s aspirations.

Corruption and the issue of judicial independence must also be tackled in a highly concerted, coherent and cohesive manner. These issues have been around since the first mandate and remain until now and this probably is the last opportunity the government in its 6th mandate has to make things right.

Cambodia can indeed learn from China in the fight against corruption. Xi Jinping’s personal mission has been tackling corruption since he became president. Mr Xi has now set up a new, strict, anti-corruption agency that oversees millions of people. Why can’t the same be done in Cambodia to root out this evil?

Things should never be taken for granted. An outright win in 2018 does not mean that there will be the same margin of support in the next commune election in 2022 and the next general election in 2023. Let’s not forget that the results of the 2013 general election and the 2017 commune election did prove that a power shift was highly probable. The people can vote a government in and they can also vote it out. The government and the CPP should not and must not forget the Malaysian example where after 60 years the ruling party was ousted on a platform of deceit and populist policies embarked on by the opposition.

The new cabinet and National Assembly must also take note that legislation like the Election Law, no matter how sacrosanct it might seem to be, can be amended to include multi-party representation through elections.

The media and the public should not treat the government with kid’s gloves. They must be brave enough to be critical of the government from the start, otherwise it will eventually slip back into its old habits. There must be a constant reminder that the new cabinet is committed to implementing reforms, as promised to the electorate, and there can be no backtracking on that.

The new cabinet must be transparent and ministers must avail themselves to the media. Spokespersons in the various ministries must receive proper training on how to engage the media. Turning off their phones or hanging up on a call is not the way to deal with media inquiries, as it tarnishes the reputation of the spokespersons – and this in turn will erode the public’s trust of the government.

In the first mandate, then second Prime Minister Hun Sen used to have regular “meet the press” sessions at the office of the Council of Ministers. This should be brought back and they should have a reliable and knowledgeable spokesperson or spokespersons to provide accurate responses instead of resorting to mere rhetoric.

With a bigger mandate comes greater responsibility and the CPP should now be on “all hands on board” mode. There is no more honeymoon period. The new cabinet should hit the ground running. The outright majority given to the CPP and the whitewash of the opposition should be a wakeup call to the government and the CPP, not the other way around.

The people have spoken through the ballot box. They can also use the same ballot box to give the Government and the CPP a rude awakening the next time around if reforms, deliverables, people centric policies, transparency, corruption and abuse of power, nepotism and cronyism are not tackled.

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