Indispensable checks and balances

The balance of political power in Cambodia today is heavily weighted in favour of the executive. The legislature needs resources, expertise and qualified staff to perform its supervisory role effectively.

[ By Arnold Dunai and Oliver Wagener ]

By enacting laws, controlling government and representing voters, parliaments perform constitu­tional duties that contribute directly to good governance. The separation of powers in a democracy – split between legislature, executive and judiciary – allows scope for civil society to participate in decision making and influence results. Cambodia’s constitution provides for this to happen – but only on paper.

Today, Cambodia is a monarchy with a democratic constitution. After decades of violence and war, the basics for politics and economy to work again had to be put in place anew. Official development assistance (ODA) contributes $ 600 million to government finances – its share is around 50 %.

The political system is dominated by the executive. The legislature of the National Assembly and Senate is forced to take a back seat. Bills are drafted at mi­ni­stries, and the quality of the drafts typically depends on whether – and to what extent – foreign experts have a hand in their preparation. The Senate fails to exercise its constitutional role as a supervisory body, and the judiciary does not have enough proficient jurists.

The government of Hun Sen, who was recently confirmed in office in general elections, thus has a free hand in drafting legislation, which parliament then rubber-stamps. Administrative structures are rudimentary and inefficient. Civil servants and public-service workers are inadequately trained, many of them poorly paid, and only very few motivated. Inside the bureaucracy, personal authority often matters more than formal jurisdiction. As in other areas of so­ciety, corruption is rampant – and the poor suffer most from this sorry state of affairs.

Although the Cambodian economy has enjoyed steady double-digit growth in recent years, much of that growth is confined to just a few sectors, such as textiles, tourism and construction. A third of the population still lives in poverty; and social inequality is increasing.

Budget monitor

Perhaps the most important function a parliament performs is to approve and monitor state budgets. In Cambodia, however, the two chambers of the legislature are hardly able to fulfil this role. They lack resources, expertise and qualified staff – and, all too often, even the political will. Compounded by corruption and patronage, such weak­nesses result in public affairs being handled in a way that is typical of many developing countries with weak institutions.

Donors have not only neglected parliaments in recent decades; in some cases, they have actually excluded them from important decision making. One example is the draf­ting of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, the quality of which was crucial for decisions on multilateral debt relief. In these matters, donors negotiated with governments, whereas parliaments were side-lined.

However, the separation of powers and the checks and balances between the different branches of government are essential for good governance and trustworthy public administration. Democracy will only succeed where elected parliaments are vi­gorous and proficient in the performance of duties. Otherwise, there will be no citizen friendly government agencies or authorities really serving the public. Therefore, it is most important to boost the support for parliaments.

In Cambodia, it is a core issue for CIM (Centre for International Migration and Development), an implementing agency of the German Development Ministry (BMZ), to support legislative bodies. CIM experts have been active at the National Assembly since 2004, advising parliamentarians on poverty-related issues in areas such as budget planning, public-finance management, environmental policy or trade legislation in the context of the country's WTO membership. Courses are held on subjects such as “Law for beginners”, events are staged on international relations, and semi­nars are conducted on budget approval and supervision.

Tangible results include greater transparency in public finance. Committee work has been streamlined, with the result of budget meetings now being prepared and concluded within the planned time frame. Courses on environmental law were held, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) were involved. Awareness of environmental issues has grown among legislators – and legislation has improved accordingly.

To involve NGOs in seminars and expert hearings serves to boost exchange between parliamentarians and civil society. Cambodian think tanks, such as the Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC) and the International Relations Institute of Cambodia (IRIC), have also taken part in workshops. Such contacts help legislators to represent and assert civic interests when dealing with the executive.

A core area of future CIM efforts will be improving inner-parliamentary administration. Such processes, so far, leave much to be desired. There is hardly any communication between various parliamentary committees – and even less coordination.

Long-term perspective

Capacity building is time consuming. Comprehensive training and institutional reform cannot be accomplished within the average assignment period of a single CIM expert. A realistic horizon for results is 10 to 15 years.

The need for long-term commitment is rooted in Cambodian politics too. The exe­cutive and judicial branches of government are exposed to far-ranging party patronage. Of course, CIM experts have no mandate to exercise political influence. Inner-party decision making is beyond CIM experts’ remit. However, patronage and the extensive interconnectedness of political and business elites make it hard to implement governance reforms and enforce steps urgently needed to reduce poverty. A strong parliament could make a difference.

For the work ahead, an inclusive approach will be crucial, involving as many stakeholders (opposition, NGOs, government) as possible. Moreover, it will not do to merely look at procedures; actual issues, such as control of corruption or suppression of poverty, need to be on the capacity-building agenda of the Cambodian legislature.

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