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New Cambodian Government Hit by Doubts on Its Legality, Ability - 2004-08-23

Cambodia's main political factions have just recently managed to form a new coalition government - almost a year after national elections were held. Reactions have been mixed, with some Cambodians expressing relief that important state business can now be done, while others say the new government is not legal and represents the same old power brokers.

It has been a year of politics - Cambodia style. There were the inconclusive national elections in July of last year, followed by months of haggling, accusations of betrayal, backroom deals with swift political maneuvering and finally a new coalition government that looks much like the previous one.

And through it all, there was very little actual new government work done.

There is a mammoth-sized cabinet with over 180 ministers, including seven deputies to assist Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Some Cambodians think that's simply unwieldy.

Retired art professor, Cham Sim likens the government to an army with too many generals and not enough foot soldiers to do the real work.

Others say the many ministerial jobs were just part of the deal struck between Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples' Party, the CPP, and the royalist Funcinpec party.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith says it was the price for forming a coalition. I agree this is a jumbo government, but you know you can say that it's better than you had to have street fighting to get to power. Maybe this is Cambodian style," he says.

But, it is not just the size of the government that has been criticized. It is also the way it was formed. The CPP and Funcinpec pushed through a law allowing the so-called package vote, under which parliament members could ratify appointments to key positions in a single vote. Many say the move was unconstitutional.

Lao Mong Hay, with the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh, says the government was formed illegally because it ignores the constitutional procedures for selecting key positions in the executive and legislative branches. "It was a sheer, blatant violation of our constitutional procedure. To claim that it was dictated by circumstances hasn't been justified. This new government was formed outside our law," he says.

The former deputy secretary-general of Funcinpec, Ok Socheat, indicates there were extenuating circumstances amid growing pressure to form a government. After one year after the election, all the donor countries asked us why we could not join the CPP and work together to receive the assistance from the donor countries. [That is[ why we decide to join CPP to receive some assistance for our people," he says.

Cambodia relies heavily on foreign aid. But, opposition politician Sam Rainsy says the billions of dollars received over the years have done little good because of rampant corruption.

He says the new government represents the same old power brokers, indicating that little progress will be made on addressing Cambodia's many problems. "There are the same people in power and the results over the last 10 to 12 years have been very poor, and apparently there is no commitment to many any changes beyond empty promises and lip service," he says.

In last year's elections, the CPP won the single biggest number of National Assembly seats, but failed to win the two-thirds majority required to govern alone. So, it had to find coalition partners.

The Sam Rainsy Party initially formed an alliance with Funcinpec and was at one point expected to join in the coalition with the CPP However, months of negotiations failed to bring the Sam Rainsy Party into the coalition.

Even though a new CPP-Funcinpec government is now in place, political wrangling is likely to continue. Sam Rainsey says his party will continue to speak out as the legal opposition.

But, there are also major issues to be dealt with. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund makes it clear that Cambodia must curb corruption to draw in more investors and turn around economic decline. Cambodia joins the World Trade Organization this year and there is legislation to be passed to comply with WTO rules.

And, the country is to begin working in earnest with the United Nations to set up an international tribunal for war crimes and genocide committed by Khmer Rouge leaders during their reign of terror in the 1970's.