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Trouble brews in two Asian democracies

Newly elected leaders in Thailand and Malaysia face mounting domestic discontent.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2008

Besieged: Thai Prime Minister Samak.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

Seizing on rising fuel prices and coalition-party stresses, political opponents are pushing to unseat the leaders of two Southeast Asian democracies, only months into their elected terms, raising the prospect of prolonged instability and social tension.

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In recent weeks, both Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi have faced mounting calls to resign.

Mr. Badawi won a symbolic vote on June 23 in Malaysia's parliament over recent pump-price hikes, after the defection of a minor coalition partner.

Thailand's opposition called for a no-confidence vote against Mr. Samak's government on a range of issues last week, including economic policies and a territorial dispute with neighboring Cambodia. Sumak survived the vote Friday.

Both prime ministers can point to popular mandates from parliamentary elections held within the past six months. But these votes, while yielding clear-cut victories, appear to have only sharpened social divisions among voters and drawing opponents swiftly back into the fray. Analysts say the resulting turmoil is testing democratic institutions and straining tempers in the two countries.

"In both countries you have very ossified regimes. Both Thailand and Malaysia are trying to find ways that politics can be peaceful and more dynamic and keep up with the times," says Michael Montesano, assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. "The fact that people are going after recently elected governments is a sign that these battles are ongoing."

The timing of parliamentary challenges in Thailand and Malaysia appears coincidental. Behind the partisan jockeying, however, are competing visions in both countries of how they should be governed.

In Thailand's case, criticism has spilled onto the streets and tens of thousands have rallied for weeks in a repeat of protracted protests in 2006 that led to a military coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. While protest leaders have tried to whip up anger over rising food and fuel prices, their prime target is still Mr. Thaksin, whom they accuse of manipulating the new government and trying to scupper pending legal cases against him.

For Bangkok's royalist elite, Thaksin's populist appeal to rural masses and eager embrace of global capitalism represented a direct challenge to their pervasive influence. Last year's military-drafted Constitution diluted the power of elected politicians and strengthened the hand of bureaucrats, judges, and generals. The election of Samak, a veteran politician who heads the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party, has renewed these tensions.