Trouble brews in two Asian democracies
Newly elected leaders in Thailand and Malaysia face mounting domestic discontent.
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In Malaysia, the contest between old and new orders is reversed. Badawi heads the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled since independence in 1957. Its success in guiding the country from being a relative backwater to a vibrant industrial economy has lost steam in recent years due to a backlash against government corruption and quotas for ethnic Malays that are resented by minorities.Skip to next paragraph
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Anwar Ibrahim, an ex-deputy prime minister turned opposition leader, has vowed to topple the UMNO-led coalition in the next few months, and, once in office, to dismantle the party's patronage system. But Mr. Anwar faces allegations of sexual assault – charges he says the government cooked up to discredit his parliamentary aims.
Anwar's political rhetoric may be overblown, say analysts, but it reflects the shifting sands beneath Badawi after opposition gains in federal and state elections in March emboldened critics within his own party.
"In theory, he has a mandate. But when you've lost your ability to get support from your own party members, then it's a different matter," says Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini, an influential political website.
One common thread between the two countries is voter discontent with elected leaders who seem out of touch on bread-and-butter issues such as economic hardship, says Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Moreover, neither Samak nor Badawi appears to have a firm grip on power.
"They are both extremely weak leaders that do not inspire confidence from the electorate," she says.
In a curious parallel, the two embattled prime ministers are both in the shadow of their predecessors, whose outsized legacy and political interests loom over the current turmoil.
Malaysia's veteran former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who chose Badawi to replace him in 2003, has demanded that his protégé resign over the poor election results. Mr. Mahathir recently resigned from the UMNO in anger over Badawi's refusal to step down
For Samak, the shadow is cast by Thaksin, a billionaire businessman who became the first elected leader in Thai history to complete his term. In 2005, his party won a majority in parliament – another first – but drew flak for alleged corruption and interference in independent state agencies designed to check the power of the executive. Thailand's powerful military took over in 2006.
Last year, a military-appointed court dissolved Thaksin's party and barred him from holding office for five years. Earlier this year, he returned to Thailand to fight corruption cases. Opponents of Samak say he's a Thaksin stand-in. Chaturon Chaisaeng, deputy prime minister under Thaksin, says that his ex-boss can't avoid being drawn into the current turmoil. "It's not possible for Thaksin to stop being in politics."