Trouble brews in two Asian democracies

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

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
Besieged: Thai Prime Minister Samak.
Besieged: Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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