Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Kono on Sunday signed a deal including millions in grants and loans during a visit to the Kingdom while also stressing the need for free and fair elections, though a Cambodian government spokesperson denied politics were discussed.

Kono signed the agreement for a more than $4.6 million grant and an $86 million loan when meeting Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday. Norio Maruyama, a press secretary for Japan’s Foreign Ministry, said the meeting had “also touched upon the general elections”, and explained that Japan wanted to see a free and fair poll this July. “We wish that the general elections will be conducted in a way that the will of the people is reflected.”

He noted, however, that Japan refrained from commenting on internal matters, and said the meaning of free and fair was a “philosophical question”. Japan has so far decided on donating ballot boxes but has not yet decided whether to send election observers, Maruyama said.

Compared to other democratic nations, Japan has remained largely silent on the government’s crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – its only viable competitor – which was forcibly dissolved amid widespread condemnation in November.

Unlike the US and EU, Japan has continued to fund the National Election Committee, but last week a Japanese emissary urged the government to open negotiations with the former opposition, a proposal that was quickly shot down by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Eng Chhay Eang, a former CNRP deputy president, welcomed Japan’s visit. “I think that Japan does not use the whip; Japan wants to use the carrot to encourage Hun Sen’s government to find the solution,” he said in a message.

But CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan mocked the opposition’s hope of Japan’s intervention.

“In reality, the Japanese foreign minister has said nothing about a political problem in Cambodia,” he said.

Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign affairs minister and key negotiator of the Paris Peace Accords, said last month that he did not expect Japan to apply pressure. “I understand Japan’s contribution to this election is to supply ballot boxes, and that’s fine, but what we would probably find more helpful is if it was a threat of withdrawal of Japanese aid or support if the election is not conducted fairly,” he said.

Celine Pajon, a Japan specialist at the French Institute of International Relations, agreed.

“Japan’s approach to diplomacy promotion abroad is to actively call for more democratic practices, but continue with the economic support as an incentive for the recipient country. Unless it receives strong pressure from the US, it seldom applies sanctions, especially if the recipient country is strategic for its interests,” she said in an email. “Cambodia is [one] such country.”