Cambodia's Political Regime (2014)

[Blogger’s note: Here is just an individual class assignment which I completed in September 2014 for school. Therefore, anyone who wants to quote the content from this work will take responsiblity for it.]
Total Number of Words: 1,490
After decades of instability and a tumultuous civil war that ravaged the country for decades, Cambodia was officially declared as a constitutional monarchy in 1993 following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and the elections organized by the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia (UNTAC).  The newly-drafted Constitution established a system of parliamentary monarchy which operates within the framework of the supreme law, with the King as the Head of State.  The constitutional powers are divided between three estates:  the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.  The constitution formally proclaims Cambodia as a liberal, multi-party democracy.  This reflection essay will explore the structure of the Cambodian polity — the system of monarchy, its parliamentary system as well as elements of liberal democracy by touching upon the crucial aspects of the declared intent of the framers of the Constitution juxtaposed with the reality of events that have shaped the nation-state over the years.
The Paris Peace Agreement brought an end to two decades of continuous warfare and 13 years of civil war was seen as a stepping stone towards peace and national reconciliation within Cambodia, and following the agreement, the UNTAC took control over the government and organized the national elections in May 1993 (Peng Hor, 2012). The country had come a long way since the days of French colonial rule and the post-independence period characterized by instability, conflict, skirmishes and war. Widely believed to signify a paradigm shift after the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as a remarkable achievement of that time, the new Constitution established a free market economy with an emphasis on protection of individual rights and liberties, personal ownership and private property, significantly altering the system of governance that had dominated Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge period.  The 1993 Constitution has been amended a total number of seven times until 2013 and still retains the basic character and structure that was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia declares the nation-state to be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and nonaligned State.  The Constitution establishes a system of “parliamentary monarchy” with the King as the Head of State for life while setting severe limitations on the exercise of his powers as the ceremonial head.*  As a part of this constitutional set-up, a dual executive which consists of the King and the Prime Minister is required, with the King serving as the notional head of executive.  The King of Cambodia is Head of State for life and cannot be removed from office except through voluntary abdication and succession.*  The King is obliged the perform in accordance with certain obligations and duties as enumerated in the Constitution.  However, at the same time, the obligation of the King to act as the “supreme arbiter for the regular execution of public powers”* would become more evident in the event of a constitutional crisis or a power-struggle between two or more branches of the State.  The King is also designated as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces who appoints a commander-in-chief to command the troops.  Therefore, while it is evident that the King does not have an active role in the political system, his role is highly consequential for the preservation and continuity of the constitutional system.  A non-political figurehead, who is perceived by the citizens as a symbol of national unity and continuity, also acts as a check on violent-extremist ideologies and factionalism that was only too prevalent in the preceding years.  Over the course of the years, King Norodom Sihanouk had intervened publicly in order to ensure resolution of political deadlocks and only recently, the reigning monarch H.R.H. Norodom Sihamoni presided over the process of reconciliation to bring the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party to join the National Assembly ending a boycott that had lasted more than ten months after the general elections in the previous year.
The Constitution recognizes the fundamental rights of the citizens* and abrogates the use of death penalty.  It guarantees respect for the freedom of speech, trade, and protection for justly acquired private property.  As a liberal democratic polity, the State guarantees universal suffrage to all the citizens of Cambodia above the age of eighteen.  The ruling Cambodian People’s Party enjoys absolute majority in the National Assembly and has been a part of the government since 1993 in coalition governments as well as a single-party government.  Despite the constitutional guarantees and protections available to citizens, the present government has been accused of widespread human rights violations by foreign governments as well as international organizations and this involves charges of rigging ballots and elections results, voter intimidation and assassination attempts at opposition figures.
The principle of separation of powers is enumerate and guaranteed under the Constitution,* and serves as a system of checks and balances between the exercise of the powers of the three branches of the State.  The Prime Minister serves as the de facto head of the Executive.  The National Assembly (123 seats) is the powerful legislative body that represents the general public, while the Senate (61 seats) is elected by commune councillors, who are themselves elected representatives at local levels of government, and both constitute the bicameral parliament.  In addition to this, two members of the Senate are appointed by the King, while two other members are appointed by the National Assembly.  While the members of the National Assembly, the Senate and the Prime Minister have the power to initiate proposed legislation, the National Assembly reserves the power to either reject or accept partially or in totality the draft legislation brought before them.  The members of the National Assembly and the Senate possess parliamentary immunity. The Judiciary forms the third branch of the Executive and is obliged by the Constitution to conduct its affairs in an impartial and independent manner.
In practice, the Cambodian polity is still viewed as one which is under single-party control with the Executive wielding enormous powers over the other two branches of the State.  The National Assembly and the Senate are perceived as rubber-stamp institutions by academics and scholars.  The Judiciary is perceived as highly dependent on the Executive for its funding and appointments. While the Constitution explicitly bars the exercise of “imperative mandate”*, meaning that the members of the National Assembly must vote in accordance with their conscience rather than the immediate wishes of their electors of their party leadership, in reality, this constitutional provision is contradicted by a statute governing the election of the members of the National Assembly which stipulates that a member of the National Assembly shall lose their seat in case they lose the membership of their political party.  This, in effect, prevents members of the National Assembly from expressing their views openly in the National Assembly and the public domain.  The “Additional Constitutional Law” contradicts the provisions of the original Constitution by permitting the exercise of a package vote with which the presidency of the National Assembly, the leadership of various assembly commissions and members of the Executive branch are appointed in addition to a vote of confidence being delivered to the government.  While this lends stability to a system that is fraught with charges of distrust and patronage among the political elites, it also allows for the continuation of the triumvirate.  The record of the judiciary is one that is mired in allegations of bribery, patronage and corruption.  Kheang Un (2005) argues that patronage politics prevalent in Cambodia involves politicians and business tycoons constituting a web that breeds corruption and violates the rule of law. This enables the ruling party to keep their grip on power which they use to influence the electoral arena, thereby forcing Cambodia into a hybrid model of governance for the foreseeable future.
Labelled as “not free” by Freedom House 2014, and ranked 14 in the Control of Corruption Percentile Indicator of Governance of the World Bank, Cambodia, like many countries in the “third wave of democratization,” has become stuck between outright authoritarianism and a full-fledged democracy, a state that Steven Lewitsky and Lucan A. Way (2002) call “a hybrid regime” (Kheang Un (2005). After the 2013 national elections, Cambodia has seen some serious reform within a few major ministries and electoral systems. Namely, this year’s election committee reform has been well-received by the public. Perhaps we should not be as optimistic to expect a real liberal democratic system too soon, but it has become clear that Cambodia meets some requirements as a democratic polity that functions within the ambit of the constitution.
The Constitution of Cambodia, Art. 7, 9, 77
Kheang Un, Patronage Politics and Hybrid Democracy: Political Change in Cambodia, 1993 – 2003 – Asian Perspective, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2005, pp. 203-230,
Peng Hor et al, Introduction to Cambodian Law (Phnom Penh: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2012), 30-76, Matthew Grainger, October 2nd 1998, Freedom House (Accessed Sept. 7, 2014), The World Bank (Accessed Sept. 7, 2014)

4 thoughts on “Cambodia's Political Regime (2014)”

  1. Kounila this was a very interesting read and has certainly done a great job of describing Cambodia’s current political system an a clear and concise way! Thank you very much. I am planning to put together an article on my blog: 3YearsEast about Cambodia’s current struggles with corruption and try to explain why is is ranked most corrupt country in currently and this has been very useful. All the best with your writing, please do check out my blog..any of your advice or comments on it will be greatly appreciated (it may be a month or so before I have put this particular article together) but stay tuned 😉

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