In Asia, two democracies wobble

An abortive coup and street protests forced the elected leaders of two troubled democracies in Southeast Asia - Thailand and the Philippines - to abruptly shift gears Friday.

In Manila, President Gloria Arroyo declared emergency rule to defy an expected military coup on the anniversary of an iconic popular uprising in 1986. Security forces later dispersed 5,000 protestors who had gathered to vent their fury against Ms. Arroyo, whose administration has been dogged by charges of incompetence and vote-rigging.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ended weeks of speculation over the legitimacy of his rule by dissolving parliament to make way for an election on April 2 - three years earlier than expected. He called this the best way to end the "mob rule" - the mass protests that have been growing in recent weeks. An estimated 30,000 Thais rallied again Sunday in the capital Bangkok to urge Mr. Thaksin to resign over alleged corruption.

While the two leaders face differing political challenges, both are struggling to satisfy expectations among voters for sustainable reforms. Their plight, say analysts, suggests that unless young democracies develop the institutions that support the rule of law - going beyond the simple right to vote - their governments remain vulnerable to "people power" coups that will usurp the democratic processes.

"The dilemma faced by both these leaders demonstrates that the triumph of electoral democracies needs to be accompanied by changes to the institutional and social settings," says Michael Montesano, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.

Of the two, Thaksin appears to be in a stronger position. Last year his party won a landslide majority that is unlikely to be reversed given the weight of rural voters who still favor Thaksin, a former police colonel who founded Thailand's dominant mobile-phone company. Last month, his family sold their shares in the company to foreign investors, netting a $1.9 billion tax-free windfall and sparking a nationalist backlash.

Critics say that in addition to putting his business interests first, Thaksin has set back Thai democracy by muzzling the media and undermining the judiciary and other independent institutions. His failure to contain a two-year insurgency in the Muslim south has also drawn criticism.

Despite this, opposition politicians say they aren't ready to contest an election against Thaksin's well-funded party. Some are pushing for a boycott of the polls. Analysts say a likely outcome of the elections is a reduced majority for Thaksin.

Paradoxically, Ms. Arroyo's resort to emergency powers speaks to the weakness of her rule. Manila was already on alert in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the "people power" revolt against ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos, when protesters vowed to gather in large numbers.

Officials said rogue Army officers and civilians were planning to capitalize on the unrest to undermine Arroyo, though some stopped short of calling it a coup. "What we have are continual headaches, but we won't be toppled [by them]," says Norberto Gonzalez, national security adviser to Arroyo. "We have enough powers to meet the challenges that we're facing."

This isn't the first time that Arroyo has dealt with alleged coup plots. Since last year she has struggled to refute allegations of widespread ballot tampering during her 2004 presidential victory. An impeachment push in September failed to get enough votes, prompting an upsurge in street activism. The emergency rule announced Friday permits the president to ban street rallies, suppress news reports, and arrest suspects without warrants.

Arroyo has held out the possibility of early elections as part of a package of reforms and a switch to a parliamentary system. Proponents say this would make politicians more accountable to voters. But analysts warn that without a clean vote, Arroyo will continue to face credibility problems, unlike her Thai counterpart.

"Nobody contests the fact that Prime Minister Thaksin won the last election, and if he calls elections and wins, nobody will doubt that win, whereas there are serious reservations about whether President Arroyo won in 2004," says Steven Rood, director of the Asia Foundation in Manila.

The turmoil comes as Filipinos reflect on the legacy of their 1986 uprising that restored democracy but failed to build a solid political framework. Coming to power in 2001 during another "people power" movement backed by security forces, Arroyo's weak position partly stems from her reliance on the military as a guarantor of power in a country long plagued by coups.

Arroyo has lost support, but many middle-class voters see little alternative among the squabbling political elite. And with many disillusioned with past protests that have ousted one leader only to get another corrupt leader, few are rushing to the streets to join the latest protests. "People power is currently exhausted. People don't see it as a viable way to improve governance," says Mr. Rood.

While Thailand shares a history of military meddling, civilian rule was strengthened in the 1990s by a constitution that favored consultation over coercion. It also has a revered monarch who has intervened before to defuse political conflicts, most recently in 1992 after violent street protests against a military-backed government.

Thaksin referred to these chapters in his national televised address, and to the risk of violence at the current rallies, which have been peaceful. "I am ready to accept the decisions of the people. But I will never accept those outside the system who claim to be deciding for the people," he said.

But analysts warn that even a convincing election victory may not be enough to end the protests. "If [Thaksin] comes back with the same style of governing and vested interests, then we're going to see people back on the streets," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

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