As Southeast Asia heads to polls, democracies tested

Wednesday, Malaysia's leader called for new elections and a Philippine court validated a populist's candidacy.

This spring, much of Asia is heading to the polls. From South Korea to Sri Lanka, some of the region's most contentious disputes will be played out at the ballot box - a testament to democracy's deepening roots in the region.

In Taiwan, the presidential elections are coupled with a first-ever referendum to gauge popular sentiment on issues related to China - elevating the balloting to an intensely watched struggle over the island's identity. Meanwhile Sri Lankan voters have a chance to break a deadlock between the president and prime minister who disagree on how best to resolve the nation's longstanding civil war.

While these contests, as well as those in South Korea and India, are notable for the sharply defined choices offered by established and competitive parties, upcoming elections in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia highlight the still-developing state of Southeast Asian democracy. Analysts say poverty and corruption in the region have fueled contests between entrenched elites and populist fringe candidates. The result is often a rudderless muddle.

"In the Philippines, there are no real parties and no platforms. So our elections don't become a chance to forge a political consensus on national direction and policy," says Alex Magno, professor at the University of the Philippines and a presidential speechwriter.

Observers note Southeast Asia's recent embrace of democracy, often in the wake of rapid economic growth. By contrast, South Korea and Taiwan reformed earlier, supported by a solid middle class. "During a democratic transition, progress tends to be a few steps forward, then a step backwards or sideways," says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi dissolved parliament Wednesday, paving the way for elections later this month. Voters will have a choice between a ruling coalition that has dominated since independence in 1957, and a conservative Islamic party. But the government's grip on the levers of power makes an opposition win unthinkable. Instead the poll will be a test of Mr. Abdullah's popularity and his standing in the coalition.

By contrast, the upcoming votes in Indonesia and the Philippines are potential nail-biters. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri - two female scions of political dynasties - face tough challengers for their jobs.

While neither country is turning its back on democracy, observers say there are worrying portents in this year's polls. In the Philippines, most attention is focused on the candidacy of Fernando Poe, a movie star who has never held public office and has a meagre policy platform.

Mr. Poe appeals mostly to the underprivileged, who elected another actor, Joseph Estrada as president in 1998 only to see him removed from office over graft charges. The Supreme Court handed Poe a major victory Wednesday by ruling him eligible to run for president on May 10, despite being born to a US mother.

Indonesia is a more recent convert to democracy than the Philippines. It ousted ex-President Suharto in 1998 and has trodden an often bloody path to greater freedom. This year will see at least two national ballots: parliamentary elections on April 5 followed by the country's first-ever direct presidential vote on July 5.

Opinion polls suggest that Indonesians will reelect the nationalist-secularist lawmakers that hold the majority of seats in parliament. The rest of the vote would be shared among several Islamic-oriented parties and a handful of other contenders. But such an outcome would not necessarily be a vote of confidence in the politicians that have hitched their wagons to democracy, say analysts.

"At some point, there is a danger that the [Indonesian] political elite could ruin democracy as a whole," says Kevin O'Rourke, author of a book on Indonesian politics. "Voters have embraced democracy and they value it. It's just that they are disenchanted with the choice of parties and candidates."

Some observers have predicted that Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, would turn to Islamic rule if the secular elite don't lift the country's fortunes.Mr. O'Rourke warns that an Islamic takeover could happen in the next 10-15 years.

In any event, Indonesia's army, which has tentacles in business and politics, would probably form a counterweight to political Islam. At least two top brass have joined this year's presidential race: security chief Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono and retired Gen. Wiranto, who is widely seen as a proxy for the disgraced Suharto clan.

However, observers also point to greater political savvy among Indonesian voters that could eventually yield better governance. For example, a December 2003 poll found that most voters cite corruption as the reason for the country's economic hardships. And even though 29 percent name Golkar, the party set up by Suharto, as competent in economics, it scored poorly in tackling corruption, suggesting that nostalgia for fast growth is tempered by recognition of where the profits went.

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