In the absence of greater efforts to enable Cambodia's political institutions in line with the spirit of the Constitution, international policies unwittingly support political personalities, whether so-called 'democrats' or 'strongmen'. Moreover, with the international spotlight on the differences between Cambodia's political camps, the difficulties of governing are easily downplayed resulting in simplistic prescriptions for bringing about political change.
The reality is that behind the formal trappings of democracy in present-day Cambodia, such as the National Assembly, is a political system based on factional politics, hierarchy and personalised rule. The hostility between the so-called 'democrats' and 'communists' disguises a high degree of war-weariness and general agreement on running the state along free-market and democratic lines. The question is: who should control the process of liberalisation?
The 'winner-take all' attitude underlying Cambodia's political culture is reinforced by the attitude that 'if you are not with us, you are with them'. This attitude is ingrained in the psyche of Cambodia's politicians, including many of those – particularly of the older generations – who have spent time in exile. This undermines cooperation and dialogue and also makes it difficult for more far-sighted Cambodians or external diplomats to play the role of a neutral mediator. In a climate of heightened competition and acute distrust, there is little incentive for transparency in decision-making, much less consensus-building.
Underlying these patterns of political interaction in Cambodia is the crucial role played by resources. Maintaining power is dependent on the ability of politicians to deliver patronage to their supporters in exchange for loyalty. All political leaders – of all political persuasions – are forced to play this card to stay in power. The past five years show that beneath the surface many of the so-called 'democrats' in the opposition differ little from their CPP counterparts, in the way they play the political game even if their stated intentions are better.
The failure of the opposition parties to work together during 1993-97 is a sad indictment of their lack of success – if not commitment – in promoting the new, more inclusive way of politics in which they profess to believe. Moreover, the massive corruption involving some within FUNCINPEC during their time in power cannot be overlooked. Yet when these problems are seen by outsiders simply as causes of Cambodia's problems rather than as symptoms of its dysfunctional institutions, this masks the real challenge of strengthening political institutions.
In the absence of easy explanations for problems, outsiders often have a tendency to blame current Cambodian politicians for a 'lack of political will' as an explanation for what is going wrong. To the extent that the accusations frequently levelled at Prince Ranariddh for being 'an incompetent ruler' or at Hun Sen for being 'drunk with power' are accurate, this emphasises the need to see the creation of political will as an important peacebuilding goal in itself, rather than falling into the trap of assuming that it already exists and can simply be called upon.
The common tendency within the international community to search for a new 'personality' to lead Cambodia out of its troubles therefore seems like an excuse to overlook the dilemmas they will face once in power. A good example of this is the case of Sam Rainsy, considered by some to be the future hope of Cambodian politics. Young and energetic, he has the image of a reformer, and is adept at wielding the language of democracy. While he enjoys a certain popularity and demonstrated real strengths as Finance Minister from 1993-95, the extreme political positions he at times adopts have been interpreted by some as an indication that he is just another politician with a winner-take-all mentality.
Whether Sam Rainsy is better or worse than other Cambodian politicians is perhaps not the key issue; the question is rather what can be done to ensure that he, or other people who hold power, are able to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities effectively. Without greater efforts to look beyond personalities and seek to influence the institutions which both shape and constrain the actions of Cambodia's leaders, international peacebuilding efforts will fall far short of laying the groundwork for a more stable, institution-based peace.