Asian pols face second-term blues

The elected leaders of Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines are all battling extraordinary efforts to cut short their tenures.

It's tough being a two-term politician in East Asia these days.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is clinging to office after a disputed April 2 election that was later annulled. The Constitutional Court is now considering disbanding his Thai Rak Thai party for alleged electoral bribery, a move that would end Mr. Thaksin's political career.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, who won a razor-thin second victory in 2004, has been beset by a corruption scandal in his family. His opponents in the legislature failed last month to force a national recall vote, but some are angling to try another route to dislodge him.

And for the second consecutive year, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo faces an impeachment bid over claims of massive electoral fraud in her 2004 victory. While support for such a challenge appears to be flagging, Ms. Arroyo has accused military officers of planning a coup. Six were arrested earlier this month.

A severe bout of second-term blues is afflicting the leadership of some of the region's most vibrant, US-allied democracies. How their institutions resolve the various clouds hanging over their elected leaders, amid rumblings of extra-constitutional plots to unseat them, is shaping up as a crucial test of their resilience.

As in the Philippines, Thailand's leader has aired his suspicions that opponents may use illegal means to overthrow his caretaker government. Analysts say it's partly a ploy to burnish Thaksin's democratic credentials ahead of a court ruling on his party's future. The military has denied coup rumors. But aides to the premier, who commands huge rural support, say the threat is real and that the ultimate loser would be Thai democracy.

"This is a critical stage for Thai politics," education minister Chaturon Chaisang told reporters in Bangkok. "What some people are trying to do now will result in the destruction of democracy. That is unacceptable. It is like burning a forest to get rid of one person."

Thai court officials say a ruling in the electoral fraud case could take months. This uncertainty makes it doubtful that the parliamentary election can be rerun on Oct. 15, as planned, and is fueling a heated debate over Thaksin's position. In April, Thaksin agreed under pressure to take a break from politics, only to reverse course in May, inflaming his opponents.

Some analysts predict that the Constitutional Court, one of several independent bodies created in 1997 to keep politicians in check, will find a compromise that keeps the parties intact in order to maintain stability. But such a move, if seen as a sop to Thaksin, runs the risk of reducing trust in judicial independence.

"The 1997 Constitution has been compromised and co-opted by Thaksin. That's why dissent is being mobilized outside the Constitution," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, referring to the street protests in Bangkok this year.

Taiwan's President Chen has also been wounded by rhetorical barbs over his family's conduct and his policy blunders. Last month, he went on national television to apologize for political setbacks, while denying that his family was enriching itself. His opponents shot back with the unsuccessful recall motion.

Yet most Taiwanese seem to have faith that their young democracy is working. The fact that Chen's son-in-law was arrested is taken by some as a sign that justice is being done.

"Politics in Taiwan is usually manipulated by minority groups. The majority is silent.... That doesn't mean they don't have an opinion. These are the people that will decide Taiwan's future," says Eric Shyu, an opposition lawmaker.

Philippine President Arroyo, a US- educated economist, is due to step down in 2010. For all the agitation, analysts say she has a good chance of serving out her elected term. In February, she imposed a brief state of emergency to tackle an alleged plot to overthrow her government.

Analysts say Arroyo's resilience reflects popular fatigue with past "people power" uprisings that dumped leaders without fixing flaws in the system. Nor is there much traction in military plotting, says Steven Rood, a political scientist who runs the Asia Foundation in Manila. "Almost no one in the political class sees it as a way of getting what they need ... we could see more 'coup attempts,' but I can't see them prospering."

Opposition politicians are looking ahead to midterm elections in 2007. But analysts say the vote-rigging that marred Arroyo's victory is unlikely to go away, as the elite have a tight lock on the process.

"This is not a Western-style democracy. It functions according to its own rules," says Erin Prelypchan, a political analyst at the PSA Group in Manila. As a result, she adds, "it's a lot more stable than it looks."

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