The Khmer Times, 21 November 2016
Japan’s foreign policy, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been more robust and assertive, through deep linkages between economic diplomacy and strategic and political interests.
Japan has also started implementing a values-based diplomacy by focusing on democracy and human rights.
Stating that “expanding support for countries that share strategic interests and the universal values of freedom and democracy with Japan is crucial in attaining a free, prosperous and stable international community with the goal of securing peace and stability in developing countries,” Japan’s White Paper on Official Development Assistance in 2012, released in 2013, enshrined democracy support as a crucial principle of the country’s foreign development support and engagement.
Cambodia is the first country Japan actively involves in democratization, particularly through electoral reform and institutional capacity building. The Cambodian government seems to trust Japan more than other countries in democratic reforms given shared understanding of Asian values.
Upon the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2013, Japan positively and quickly responded with support to reform the electoral system by providing technical and financial assistance to the National Election Committee (NEC).
After the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, Cambodians from different political and ideological orientations came together to reconstruct the war-torn country with the introduction of a liberal democratic political system.
Democracy is believed to be the foundation of peace, stability and development. However, democratization is a long, complex process. Democracy will fail if the people fail to understand and practice the core values of democracy.
Social cohesion, political consensus, institution building, responsible leadership, citizenship, people empowerment and public participation are indispensable elements in democratic consolidation.
Cambodian democracy remains fragile due to the lack of a strong and resilient democratic institution. Over-personalized politics, zero-sum political game, political polarization and irresponsible public manipulation have been threatening the very foundation of democracy.
Although five general elections had been organized since the UN-supervised 1993 election, Cambodia has grappled with post-election political crisis or deadlock.
Election irregularities were the main issues used by the losing parties to protest against the winning parties. Normally, power bargaining and sharing between political parties led to post-election political reconciliation and settlement.
In the aftermath of the 2013 election, the power-sharing arrangement between the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party was short-lived.
Deep political distrust between the two leaders of the two parties prevents the two parties from reaching any meaningful and fruitful political negotiation.
Uncertainty and risks are high ahead of the upcoming elections, which are predicted to be the most competitive race between the two main political rivals. There have been questions raised in relation to whether the upcoming elections will be fair and inclusive. The most puzzling question is whether a power transition, should there be any, would be peaceful.
The international community is pinning its hopes that through free, fair and inclusive elections, Cambodia will be able to maintain political stability and continue to prosper.
Japan and the European Union are the two main donors in electoral reforms. Japan supports the NEC in three areas: voter registration, the improvement of electoral procedures and the enforcement of voter awareness and education activities.
So far, the voter registration system has been smoothly carried out with a computerized system, with more than 74 percent of the electorate registered.
With the improvement of the organizational structure and technical system, the NEC will be able to perform much better than before. There will be no legitimate reason for any political party to protest against the election results, so the post-election political crisis or deadlock will be avoided.
Should electoral reform in Cambodia prove to be a success story, Japan will continue expanding its values-based diplomacy to other parts of the world, similar to what Japan has done with regards to peacekeeping operations.
Personal interest and dedication to human rights and democracy by the former Japanese ambassador to Cambodia, Yuji Kumamaru, also contributes to promoting Japan’s image and role in strengthening democracy in the Kingdom.
“Reforming the election system, along with the NEC demonstrating independence and neutrality, is a perquisite for increasing trust and confidence of people and for all the political parties and candidates competing in the election freely and fairly,” Mr. Kumamaru said on August 18.
“It is hardly necessary to point out that every step of the election processes needs to be as open and inclusive as possible,” he added.