Charges of corruption dog two Southeast Asian democracies

Filipino President Arroyo rebuffs calls for her resignation. Her husband went into exile Thursday.

Fresh allegations of election graft are hounding the leaders of two of Southeast Asia's more robust democracies.

In the Philippines, President Gloria Arroyo faces calls to resign over alleged interference in vote counting after last May's election. In a televised address on Monday, Ms. Arroyo admitted calling an election official during the count but denied she had sought to influence the outcome of the vote.

In a related controversy, Mrs. Arroyo's husband, Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, left Thursday to live in Hong Kong. Mr. Arroyo, his brother, and his son are accused of using profits from illegal gaming to fund political campaigns, charges they have denied. His departure is seen as a bid to defuse tensions over the allegations of graft and election tampering.

In Thailand, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra easily defeated a no-confidence motion in parliament Wednesday after two days of debate over an airport bribery scandal. Analysts say the controversy has dented the government's credibility and raised questions about illegal payments to political campaigns.

Taken together, the two unfolding scandals highlight the often murky finances that grease the election trail in Southeast Asia. While kickbacks to politicians are not new, the revelations have renewed calls for transparency in campaign funding and for more assertive regulators.

"The people can only take so much. They will only tolerate a certain amount of thieving and cheating in the political process before they say, 'Enough!'" says Sheila Coronel, director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Manila.

In her televised address, Arroyo conceded she made a "lapse of judgment" when she repeatedly called an election commissioner last June. That conversation was wiretapped - reportedly by Army intelligence - along with other calls to election officials.

Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was forced from office in 2001 amid street protests over graft accusations. He is in jail awaiting trial. Analysts warn that public outrage over Arroyo's actions could ignite a repeat performance, though protests so far have been modest by Filipino standards.

Arroyo has a congressional majority that should defeat any impeachment push. But one prominent congressional ally, former national security adviser Roilo Golez, resigned Wednesday from Arroyo's party and echoed calls for her to step down. "My feeling is that the president's credibility has cracked, and without that credibility and moral authority, it will be very difficult for her to lead the country," he says.

Analysts reckon Arroyo still has the backing of the Roman Catholic Church and the Army, though her credibility may be slipping in the business community. The resignation Thursday of Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, who is accused of tax evasion, marked the start of a promised high-level shakeup that could include new faces on the seven-member election commission. Such a move would offer a silver lining to disgruntled voters after the wiretap revelations tarnished the commission's name, says Joel Rocamora, director of the Institute for Popular Democracy in Manila. "If [Arroyo] puts good people on the election commission and implements a modernization plan, then we could have some credible commissioners in place," he says.

In Thailand, the opposition has seized on revelations that a US company had admitted paying bribes to win contracts in China, Thailand, and the Philippines. InVision Technologies of Newark, Calif., since taken over by GE, is contracted to supply 26 high-tech baggage scanners to Bangkok's new international airport, due to open later this year.

Opposition politicians say the $65 million price tag and advance payments made to a Thai broker point to political kickbacks ahead of February's general election. None of the scanners has been delivered to the airport, which is already months behind schedule. "Without doubt, this [bribery] money was part of the package used for the election.... The most significant payments were made in January and again on Feb. 4, two days before the election," says Korn Chatikavanij, deputy leader of the Democrat Party. "We don't believe in coincidences."

Unlike in the Philippines, the Thai scandal hasn't implicated Prime Minister Thaksin, who has denied any corruption in the contract process. Attention is focused on Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit, who oversees the $3.7 billion airport project. Suriya has denied all wrongdoing.

"This was a miscalculation. [Thaksin] was going to win the elections anyway.... They didn't need this money to win," says Thitinan Pongsuhdirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.

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