Should Cambodia Consider Term Limits for Its Prime Ministers?
Jul 17, 2021
Written by: Soth Chhayheng, a 2nd year student at Thammasat University, Bachelor of Political Science Program in Politics and International Relations
Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland, Australia
Photo Credit: AFP/CAMBODIA NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
Cambodia’s constitution adopts the principles of liberal multi-party democracy. Since 1993, every five year Cambodian people go to cast their vote in the general election to elect their leaders. Over the past few decades, the Kingdom has changed significantly. However, if there is one thing that has not changed ever since, it is its prime minister.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has enjoyed ongoing support from the supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party. While at the same time receiving harsh criticisms from the opposition over his long tenure in holding Cambodia’s highest political office. Presently, he is one of the 15 world’s longest-serving leaders. According to its constitution, Cambodia does not have a restricted term limit for the prime minister. This loophole has allowed Prime Minister Hun Sen to continue running as a Prime Ministerial candidate for the Cambodian People’s Party in every general election since 1993. “I will rule until a point that I feel I no longer want to rule,” said Prime Minister Hun Sen during a recent press conference at Calmette Hospital after getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
The rationale behind the executive term limits can be traced back to ancient history. Aristotle highlighted that “no office should ever be held twice by the same person” as a key characteristic of democracy. In most democratic states and even many communist regimes, there is a clear restriction on how many years or terms one person can be the leader of the executive branch. Cambodia’s neighbors such as Thailand have set two term limits for prime ministers who shall not hold office for more than eight consecutive years.
Against this backdrop, should Cambodia consider setting term limits for the Prime Ministerial position? This article aims to advance the arguments in favor of term limits, although there are other arguments that can be used to counter the arguments presented in this article. Yet, readers shall define an answer to this question on their own. This article only offers one perspective, which may constitute a basis for informed discussion and debate on this issue.
Yes, Cambodia should set term limits for prime ministers
History has taught us that one of the major reasons that contributed to Cambodia’s decline was the unclear and turbulent transition of power from one leader or ruler to another; that is, the change of rulers often resulted in civil war and destruction of the country. During the Oudong period (1618-1863), we saw the internal struggle between several kings that fought to claim the throne, allowing the two neighboring countries to interfere. Later the country experienced endless suffering and the loss of sovereignty, territory, and independence. After receiving independence from France in 1953, Cambodian people held high hope that peace would last under the rules of King Father Norodom Sihanouk. However, it turned out to be another tragedy, after General Lun Nol and Prince Sisowath Siri Matak staged a coup to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Five years after the coup, the darkest cloud flew across Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Immediately following the collapse of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia experienced the internal struggle of power for another decade between four political factions.
Now Cambodia is finally at peace and stability – at least by the traditional definition of peace which is the absence of war. One of the most concerning questions for the Cambodian people right now is “What is next after Hun Sen?”. The Prime Minister himself had asked the same question. This question arises due to the long tenure of Hun Sen as the Cambodian Prime Minister.
Setting term limits for prime ministers is a political agenda that can determine a proper political norm for Cambodia’s future. Considerably, politicians can look at the following points. First, if five years per each term is reasonable, we shall keep it as it is. Second, as for the matter of how many terms should be set for this particular position, a two-term limit is reasonable, which should be considered. This means that one person can have a chance to be a Cambodian prime minister for a maximum of 10 years. With this timeframe, it is more than practical for the leader to carry out efficient and effective policies to leave the office with legacy and dignity.
Reasons for setting term limits for prime ministers
There are several credible reasons as to why Cambodia should set term limits for its prime ministers.
First, it is a crucial step of political modernization to create a fundamental political norm that can ensure more transparent and effective governance, increase strong accountability, decrease corruption, and strengthen the rule of law. Above all it is to ensure a predictable, stable, and peaceful transition of power. Leaders would be more likely to focus on the matter of running the country in the most efficient way to leave the position with credible legacy rather than spending much of their time thinking of ways to eliminate their potential competitors and on how to extend their time in office. Setting a clear line of tenure for prime ministership would prevent any leader from attempting to build up his/her own dynasty in the Kingdom. It would also contribute immensely to strengthening state institutions. The absence of term limits allows one person to rule for too long, which is not the best course of action for Cambodia’s prosperous and sustainable future.
Second, the term limits of the highest political position can potentially guarantee a healthier political culture in Cambodia. Setting term limits for prime ministers is an effective approach for Cambodia to achieve broader democratic reforms by widening political space for active and constructive political engagement from all levels and improving political representation. The fact that many politicians and activists have been arrested and forced to live in exile indicates the deterioration of the human rights situation which is caused by the unhealthy political culture that Cambodia has. This is not to mention that many Cambodians are afraid of talking and playing their civic duties in political engagement. All of these reflect the current development of Cambodia's political context. There have been calls for discussion and collective action to improve our political culture and political environment. As concerned citizens, we all have a part in this. But how would a clear set of term limits for prime ministers help improve our political culture? The change in the highest political office would lead to a better political environment of competition between politicians. Mutual understanding and compromise would be promoted in the political sphere. The change of political leadership would potentially encourage Cambodian people, particularly the younger generation to rise and engage in politics more actively and constructively. These groups of people will bring with them new ideas, policies, and strategies that can shape the development of the Kingdom. Thus, a healthier political culture is very much needed for Cambodian people, and setting term limits for prime ministers is a positive step toward that end. Peace and stability should be guaranteed by a democratic system, not by a person, or else it won’t last.
Third, having clear term limits for the prime ministers is a viable means to prevent Cambodia from descending into authoritarianism and to decrease structural social injustice. Countries with leaders who stayed in power longer than two decades are almost universally authoritarian. However, perhaps Cambodia has not reached that point yet, even though scholars have suggested that Cambodia is leading Southeast Asia's authoritarian ways. Authoritarianism denoted any political system in which power is concentrated in the hands of a leader or a small group of elites. Structural social injustice is very much likely to occur in an authoritarian state. The abuse of power, improper check and balance between different branches of the government, the absolute or nearly absolute power of a particular leader and group that violate the rights of the people, systematic corruption, and the drives to eliminate potential political competitor either within or outside the party are all the signs of an authoritarian state and structural injustice in society. These issues lead to endless deadly political rivalry among politicians and resentment toward the ruling elite from the people who suffered from the system. In the end, it will result in a more divided society.
Last but not least, setting term limits for prime ministers would be helpful for the future of Cambodian politics. The advantages of having clear term limits for Cambodia’s highest political leader are much more than the disadvantages. For the best interest of the people and the country, politicians should seriously put their personal and group interests aside and choose what is best for the country.
For far too long, the argument that there is only one capable person that can play this leadership is not true. In fact, there are many potential capable leaders both from within and outside of the ruling party. For instance, Prime Minister Hun Sen has mentioned the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance Aun Pornmoniroth as his potential successor. There are also other potential candidates for prime ministership such as Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng and Lieutenant General Hun Manet.
So should Cambodia set term limits for its prime ministers? I hope you have an answer for this question. For me, it is a resounding yes!