Cambodian Politics Needs Fixing

The Khmer Times, 27 April 2016

Cambodia is entering a new phase of political tension and uncertainty. The political outlook is relatively bleak as a political storm is gathering on the horizon.
Cambodian politics is very much shaped by historical memories, cultural values, economic conditions, social transformations, external factors and foreign intervention.
After the collapse of the Khmer Empire, Cambodia experienced more than five centuries of foreign intervention, colonialism and occupation. The lack of national unity was the single root cause of national weaknesses and humiliation.
Thanks to a win-win policy in 1998 mastered by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has been able to unite the whole country under one legitimate government. But Cambodian politics have been personalized too much. Political institutions have not been effectively strengthened.
Due to the serious lack of political trust and weak state institutions, Cambodian politics is prone to conflict, violence and instability. A survival of the fittest strategy pretty much characterizes Cambodia’s political culture.
It was expected that political reconciliation under the “culture of dialogue” between the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) would transform their power struggle from a negative-sum game into a positive-sum game in which all political parties co-exist and work together to serve common national interests.
However, the political détente was unfortunately short-lived due to the lack of substance and working mechanisms to sustain and nurture political trust. Mutual personal attacks and deep distrust between the leaders of the two parties were the main factor in derailing the dialogue process.
Episodes of political intimidation have led to views that the division between the two main political forces is enlarging. There is zero trust between the leaders of the two main political parties.
Some local and international observers have raised concerns that democracy and the rule of law are significantly regressing. They call for political solutions.
To revive and sustain political dialogue and trust building, both parties need to focus on institutional reforms, nation building and democratic consolidation.
The process of political trust building is the foundation of long-term peace and stability in the country.
The key challenge facing Cambodia is how to have a peaceful and smooth power transition, taking into account the past experiences of violence.
The core question is therefore how Cambodia can move from the political culture of revenge and violence to a political culture of peace and dialogue.
Regardless of the democratic backwardness, democratic values will prevail. No forces are powerful enough to stop the hard-earned multi-party political system and democracy in this Kingdom.
Free, fair and inclusive democratic elections are the backbone of long-term peace and stability. There is no peace without justice and genuine democratic elections.
After embracing the values of democracy for more than two decades, Cambodians are well aware of their rights and duties as citizens in a democratic governance system.
The young people will not tolerate any intentions or acts that derail the democratic path towards long-term peace and development.
As local and national elections are approaching, competition for power between the CPP and CNRP is intensifying. The 2018 election will be the most competitive race between the two political forces to date.
It is still too early to predict who will win, as the election results will be very much defined by the votes cast by young voters.
More than 30 percent of the population is aged between 15 and 29 and the percentage will increase to 40 percent in 2020. Such a demographic factor forces political leaders to transform their leadership style and communication strategy.
The young people are looking for their role model(s). Leaders need to lead by example. A democratic, servant and transformative type of leadership is required.
The party likely to win the next election needs to have a convincing and realistic strategy to win the hearts of young voters.
The two main political parties need to take co-leadership roles in maintaining peace and stability, and be the role models for other smaller political parties.
Some of the issues and challenges faced are increasing political polarization and the expanding trust deficit between the state and society. The speed of social change far surpasses that of state institutional reforms.
Political leaders need to adjust their way of thinking, behavior and approach so they can meet the aspirations and needs of the young.
The key issues for the upcoming local and national elections are poverty, corruption, social injustice, land disputes, economic inequality, depletion of natural resources (particularly deforestation) and territorial sovereignty.
As society is changing so rapidly, adaptive political leadership is required. Political leaders need to understand both the existing and emerging social problems and needs, based on which necessary mechanisms and tools are developed and energy and resources are mobilized to resolve those problems and needs.

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