Cambodia's 1993 Constitution today remains little more than a proclamation of intentions. Article 51 stipulates that 'all powers belong to the people' and that they will 'exercise these powers through the National Assembly, the Royal Government and the Judiciary'. The establishment of these three branches of government corresponds closely with the liberal democratic spirit of the Paris agreements though in practice there is not yet a separation of powers. This can be seen most clearly with regard to the National Assembly which was directly elected by the people.
During its first term, the National Assembly was unable to exercise its legislative powers effectively or to control the government as foreseen by the Constitution. Not a single private bill was considered by Assembly members, let alone adopted; all legislation passed was drafted by the government. Rarely did the Assembly question either Prime Minister, or indeed any minister at all. In most of the debates which took place, the same few members of parliament took the floor and most deputies toed the lines imposed by party leaders. The National Assembly, in short, quickly became a 'rubber stamp' of the government.
While the effectiveness of the National Assembly was undermined by a packed legislative schedule and the lack of technical expertise needed to draft laws, the real problem was the absence of conditions conducive to open debate and the blatant disregard by both the CPP and FUNCINPEC for constitutional procedure. Party leaders regularly suppressed debate on sensitive issues or delayed the passage of legislation which threatened the stability of the fragile governing coalition or personal interests.
The generally tense political climate did not favour the creation of other bodies intended to serve as checks and balances on the use of power. The National Congress during the 1950s and early 1960s, was an annual open-air meeting at which the population received government reports and raised issues of concern with their government. In the 1990s it could have served as an outlet for popular grievances, and as a way for the people to interact directly with their representatives, but it has never been convened.
The role of the Constitutional Council was to interpret the Constitution and ensure the legality of all laws made by the government. It was not established until May 1998 when international pressure mounted on the government to ensure that there would be a legal mechanism to adjudicate disputes arising from the July 1998 elections. Even then the independence and legitimacy of the council was quickly called into question because it had not been formed in accordance with the procedures outlined in the Constitution.
The Supreme Council of the Magistracy, for its part, was intended to assist the King in ensuring the independence of the judiciary. It has only met once and, as a consequence, the promised reform of the judiciary has never come about. Most current judges were appointed before 1991, more on the basis of their political loyalty to the CPP than on merit. Few have adequate legal training or are considered impartial. Moreover, in blatant contravention of constitutional provisions regarding the separation of powers, the Minister of Justice – a government official – controls the judiciary.
Underlying this problem has been the inability of the King to effectively guarantee the independence of the judiciary as called for by the Constitution. In the face of a tendency by certain officials to interpret his every action as 'political interference', the King has consistently refrained from exercising his legitimate powers to the extent that is possible. Instead, he has been content to make general proclamations calling for human rights to be respected or expressing his disapproval of unfolding political events. The King's ability to check abuses of power has thus been greatly undermined and the monarchy's future role in Cambodia's political life is being called into question (see the short article by Chea Vannath in this issue).