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Whatever the taste, the source of the wine remains the same

REUTERS/Samrang Pring

When we first ran an editorial on the cabinet for the 6th mandate to be formed this Thursday, we made comparisons with the adage of “old wine in a new bottle“. We followed it up with a second piece on the pitfalls of “old wine in an old bottle”.

Events over the weekend were interesting as there were sweeping changes in the Ministry of Interior, where up to 10 senior officials were asked to retire and new ones installed. This large-scale reshuffle sparked a wave of rumours that this is a precursor to the new cabinet which could see equally sweeping changes as well.

But this is a red herring. These police officers in the Ministry of Interior were past their prime and due for retirement anyway and as such may not necessarily be part of a sweeping reform agenda.

Having considered the secrecy of the cabinet formation except for the straight forward confirmation of two cabinet positions, the Handicrafts Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister,

everything else has been a tightly guarded secret.

There are those who argue that the status quo in the cabinet should remain. If it’s not broken, why fix it, they ask. For one, they point out that the cabinet of the 5th mandate had worked extremely hard and managed to deliver in totality, the 125 seats available for the 6th mandate. Hence, they further argue, these cabinet ministers should be rewarded for their hard work with continuity.

True. But then again, after the morale sapping 22-seat loss in 2013, some of these cabinet members also reportedly appealed and pleaded for one more term. Now how did that resonate with the people? After one or two years of anxiety and rush, the cabinet settled back to its “business as usual routine” and the prime minister’s much touted reform agenda remained on the table and gathered dust as it did not filter down to the people to have any material effect on deliverables.

Mismanagement, abuse of power at the grassroots level, gave impetus to the fact that in 2017, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) lost some 400 commune council seats to the opposition, an almost ten-fold increase compared to 2012. And once again, the lethargy and taking-for-granted attitude has returned with no credible opposition voted into the National Assembly or in shape and form.

The ruling elites must be realistic and do some deep soul searching. Was the outright total victory on July 29 due to the hard work and achievements of the government or was it because of ‘legal’ removals of some of the political threats that stood in the way, prior to the general election?

Will the ‘princelings’ as filial as they are, support the decision of the prime minister and the CPP elders if the much anticipated change of guards to some level did not take place? Will they be satisfied to just wait until they are ‘allowed’ to move up the ladder at the end of the 6th mandate, when members of the gentrified cabinet reach ‘forced’ retirement age? These are questions that beg to be answered.

That there is need for new blood is crystal clear to sustain the power base and legitimacy of the ruling CPP. The outstanding question is will the 6th mandate be a hybrid of the “new blood” and the “old blood”, or will the majority of the 30 cabinet members remain the same with just cosmetic changes made in a subsequent reshuffle. The jury will still be out until Thursday. However, reading between the lines, the debate will continue about missed chances. And the yea-sayers will always put forward “the time is not ripe yet” to soothe the dissenters within the party, and it will most likely be business as- usual for the 6th mandate cabinet until 2022/2023 looms near.

Nonetheless, there are two structural issues here.

Firstly, the new cabinet will bear a heavier burden and face mounting challenges in dealing with both people’s expectations and international pressures and sanctions. The prime minister himself will surely be filled with a steely determination to meet the expectations of the people who have placed their future squarely on his shoulders, with the expectations that real reforms will deliver concrete results that will help improve their livelihoods.

The question that begs to be answered is when the ‘feel good’ factor of having won a resounding victory wears off, will the cabinet members assume their

responsibilities with equal gusto and determination as that of the prime minister’s. Will smart hard work, done proactively, be the mantra of these cabinet ministers to transform the ‘feel good’ factor into reality at the grassroots?

Secondly, irrespective of old or new wine, they both come from the ‘same vineyard’. There may be spillover effects from the ‘taste of previous grapes’ as they are added as flavor to make the old wine taste and appear good in a repackaged brand new bottle. The flavouring may even be to hide the looming taste of vinegar.

What does it all mean?

It means that public trust and confidence in the government will erode unless the new cabinet, which is going to navigate Cambodia through uncertain and turbulent times, can deliver its promises and realise its development vision of improving the livelihood of the people and strengthening good governance.

Overconfidence is a weakness. The new cabinet has to keep reforming, looking for innovative solutions, and listening to people’s concerns. Although it is puzzling to foresee the emerging power dynamics in the formation of the new cabinet, one thing is clear: the repercussions will be long-term. You reap what you sow, as the saying goes, and the results will be reflected in the commune election in 2022 and general election in 2023 – and beyond.

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