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Little Decentralization, Despite Local Elections: Monitor

Koul Panha, Executive Director of The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL).
Koul Panha, Executive Director of The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL).

Even as local elections approach, election monitors say the process of decentralization has been too slow and will continue to be an obstacle to the country’s development.

Even though there was been “some” political and administrative decentralization, all finance is still tightly controlled by the central government, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. This makes it hard for local leaders to move their own initiatives, he said.

Cambodians are preparing for local elections on Sunday, when they will choose members of their commune councils.

Sak Setha, who is in charge of democratic development at the Ministry of Interior, said local-level governments have been working together, despite party differences, to develop grassroots administration. They have funding from the government and from non-governmental organizations, which is a major change from 10 years ago, he said.

“This means that at the local level they act to represent the people’s interests,” he said.

Commune council members have been working together to improve voter registration, records keeping, security and public order, he said.

Still, commune chief’s like Hat Bunpheap, from Kampong Thom province, say there is limited power transferred from the national level.

“For example, on the issue of development, when a charity wants to contact us, they must go through the national level,” he said.

Koul Panha said that commune councils do have more power now than they used to, as parties act as checks and balances against each other. “That’s important,” he said.

Critics say the local commune councils have been unable to solve the largest problems facing their communities, land grabs and forced evictions. But Koul Panha said citizens must remember they are the bosses for whom commune councilors work.

“If they are acceptable, let’s keep them,” he said. “And if they are not acceptable, don’t vote for them and don’t keep them.”