Japan Cannot Afford to Ignore Democracy Treated as Mere Formality

An election that excludes opposition forces can hardly be called legitimate. The Cambodian administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen must accept the concerns of Japan and the West about its backsliding democratization process and it should stop suppressing the opposition.

It has become certain that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party will see a landslide victory for the nation’s general election to be held July 23. This is because the National Election Committee, which is under the influence of the administration, barred the Candlelight Party, a leading opposition party, from participating in the election.

The reason for the exclusion of the Candlelight Party is said to be that some of the documents for party registration were photocopies instead of originals. The suspicion cannot be eliminated that the conclusion was premeditated.

This is the second consecutive general election without the presence of a leading opposition party. In the previous election in 2018, the administration charged the leader of the then leading opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party of treason and forced the party to be dissolved. As a result of the blatant suppression of the opposition, the Cambodian People’s Party dominated, taking all 125 seats.

The Candlelight Party, a successor of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, won 22% of the votes cast in last June’s local elections, seen as a prelude to the upcoming general election, behind only the Cambodian People’s Party at 74%. The focus of the general election had been on how much of a boost the Candlelight Party would receive.

Army commander Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen who has been named by the 40-year incumbent as his successor, is also running in the general election. The Cambodian People’s Party has also decided to nominate him as its candidate for prime minister.

The elimination of the opposition may be aimed at blocking protests to the transfer of power from father to son. Hun Sen is obviously personalizing his power.

After more than 20 years of civil war that claimed millions of lives, Cambodia has been rebuilding and democratizing since the 1990s with the support of the United Nations, Japan, the United States and European countries. The current situation, in which democracy has been reduced to a mere formality, is a major betrayal of the expectations of the international community.

Hun Sen’s iron-fisted rule is in effect supported by China. China’s massive investment and aid have brought about the economic development of Cambodia, forming the basis to legitimize his longtime rule.

With regard to the moves excluding the opposition party, the U.S. State Department has criticized that the actions “undermine Cambodia’s international commitments to develop as a multiparty democracy.” France, Germany and other countries have issued similar statements. Japan’s view, on the other hand, is that the government “closely watches with concern.”

Japan, which was deeply involved in the peace process in Cambodia in the 1990s, has maintained good relations with the Hun Sen regime, in contrast to the hard-line approach taken by the West.

However, Japan cannot afford to ignore the repression of opposition forces that is taking place right under its nose. As Cambodia’s largest supporter in the past, Japan needs to send a strong message to the Hun Sen regime to exercise restraint, beyond just expressing “concern.”

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 9, 2023)