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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Cambodian government faces uphill task
By Tom Fawthrop
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Prince Ranariddh (l) and Hun Sen (r)
Ranariddh (l) and Hun Sen have formed an uneasy compromise
Cambodia's new coalition government is finally in place - after a record 11-month post-election stalemate.

After seemingly endless political wrangling, ministers have now been appointed to make the decisions which have been held in limbo for nearly a year.

But many ordinary Cambodians are pessimistic about the success of the new government - partly because of the massive increase in ministerial posts, which some say could hinder decision-making.

One thing is certainly clear - these new ministers, all 207 of them - face an uphill struggle to put this poverty-stricken country back on the path towards development.

Stalemate

The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), led by prime minister Hun Sen, won a clear majority in the July 2003 election, beating its nearest rival Funcinpec, the royalist party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

But the CPP lacked the two-thirds majority required by the constitution to form a new government.

Funcinpec then forged an alliance with another opposition group, the Sam Rainsy Party, to block attempts to form a new coalition.

The country drifted for almost a year, based on a caretaker government unable to sign any new aid agreements and with no functioning parliament.

In order to end the political wrangling, Hun Sen finally clinched a new coalition deal with Prince Ranariddh.

As part of the compromise, there has been a huge increase in government posts, including no fewer than seven deputy prime ministers.

The same faces, the same politicians - meanwhile conditions of the farmers are getting worse
Sam Vuthy, Womyn's Agenda for Change
At a time when the economy and agriculture are stagnant, practically the only current growth sector - with the exception of the tourist industry - appears to be the government.

The changes appear to stem from a request by Funcinpec, which only won 26 seats in the National Assembly and anticipated that it would be obliged to hand over a number of portfolios to the Sam Rainsy Party, which won 24 seats.

Funcinpec insisted on increasing the number of ministerial posts. The cabinet alone now has 180 members, up from a previous 80.

Meanwhile, all 24 Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarians have boycotted the National Assembly completely, claiming the other two parties violated constitutional procedures in forming the new government.

Few people are optimistic about their new jumbo-sized administration. Chea Vannath, president of the Centre for Social Development, called it "a change for the worse".

"So many ministers will only cause confusion with no clear job definitions," she said.

A CPP cabinet minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the BBC: "I was against this measure. The pace of the government will be slower - too many cooks will spoil the broth."

Lao Mong Hay, who works for a non-governmental organisation, called the bloated size of the new cabinet an "outrage".

"We have estimated the extra cost at $1m per month in extra salaries, yet our teachers can't survive on their meagre salary of $20 a month. That extra million could almost double teachers' salaries," he said.

Wealth gap

Education is one of a number of vital issues that the new government needs to deliver on, in order to prevent the nation from sliding into the abyss.

Street children search a rubbish bin for food
Many Cambodians are still desperately poor
A recent United Nations study found that in rural areas, 73% of women and 55% of men did not even complete primary education.

Literacy rates are low, and infant mortality has increased in recent years - a fact that has been linked to an increased population being served by fewer public health facilities.

The government claims that it is about to implement a new World Bank-designed formula, called the National Poverty Reduction Strategy, in an effort to alleviate the problem.

Addressing the Asia Development Bank forum in 2003, Hun Sen declared: "For the Royal Government of Cambodia, the war on poverty is not just a policy, but a passion."

But the gap between the glittering wealth of the Phnom Penh elite and the great mass of the rural poor has never been greater - and it will take more than flowery rhetoric about poverty reduction to reverse this well-established trend.

Sam Vuthy, a development worker for an organisation called Womyn's Agenda for Change, is not convinced the new government will be able to tackle the problem.

"This new coalition is just more of the same," he said.

"The same faces, the same politicians - meanwhile conditions of the farmers are getting worse," he said.




SEE ALSO:
Cambodian parliament ends deadlock
15 Jul 04  |  Asia-Pacific
King reappoints Cambodian PM
14 Jul 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia agrees coalition deal
30 Jun 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia parties' parliament row
26 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Hun Sen
25 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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