A total of 10 young Cambodians, from 8 ruling and opposition parties and a think-tank, toured Miyazaki City in western Japan on April 22.
The city bustled with campaign activity ahead of the municipal election, which was part of Japan's nationwide local polls. Voting took place the following day.
The group was briefed at the city hall by election officials on Japan's voting system. Some members noted regulatory differences with Cambodia, including Japanese limits on campaign spending.
They then visited an early voting station set up at a mall, where citizens cast ballots as they shopped. Officials explained how they checked voters' identities, and secured ballot boxes.
The Miyazaki assembly election shaped into a fierce battle, with 61 candidates running for 40 seats.
The Cambodians saw candidates stumping for support through downtown areas, and got up close to campaign speeches on street corners.
On election day, Sunday, they visited a polling station before observing the vote counting at night. At a tally room set up in a city gymnasium, they watched how votes are sorted, including the use of machines.
Khim Finan, a member of the ruling party, said he was impressed by the convenience of early voting stations. He said he felt Japan's democracy has matured, as people appear to trust the system. He also expressed surprise at the passionate level of campaigning, saying he had expected Japanese elections to be more quiet.
Cambodian democracy: legitimacy has been questioned
With its population of 15.3 million, Cambodia has been ruled for more than 30 years by Prime Minister Hun Sen. A general election has been held every five years since 1993, after the end of the civil war. Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party currently holds all 125 parliamentary seats.
Western and other countries have questioned the legitimacy of Cambodia's elections. In the previous poll 5 years ago, the largest opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was unable to participate after being ordered by a court to dissolve. Japan's then foreign minister, Kono Taro, expressed concern to the Cambodian government, saying various aspects of the election were regrettable, including numerous invalid votes.
Cambodian courts have lent support to the ruling party. With a general election coming up in July this year, Kem Sokha, co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was found guilty of treason in March, and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Concerns are growing among the international community, especially in Europe and the United States, that democracy in Cambodia may be in decline.
The Cambodian delegation to Japan included Tip Teav, an opposition member who aims to run in the general election. He said democracy in Cambodia may be hobbled by a belief that political parties cannot coexist. He said Cambodians need to understand that parties with different views can share common principles, as he saw in Japan.
The Cambodian visit was part of a Japanese foreign ministry exchange program launched in fiscal 2015 to promote understanding of Japan. The plan has hosted young people from around the world, and sent Japanese university students abroad.
About 32,000 people have taken part so far. Overseas participants study Japanese culture as well as observing judicial systems and court trials. They have also observed how local governments work on disaster prevention measures.
This time, the ministry invited the young Cambodians to let them observe foundations of Japanese democracy. The aim is to promote democracy in Cambodia, but ministry officials say they don't wish to impose Japan's system, as every country has its own political and electoral context, as well as differing views on democracy. The ministry says it is important that other countries follow their own path.
Japan's State Minister for Foreign Affairs Takei Shunsuke said Cambodia has suffered a horrific civil war, and has embarked on a democratic path after a massive rift among its people. He said he hopes young political actors, regardless of which side they are on, can gain something from an understanding of the Japanese political system.