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In Bangkok and Manila, governments wobble

Philip Bowring

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2006
HONG KONG There are many differences between the political crises now facing the Thai and Philippine democracies, but both represent unresolved conflicts between the ballot box and street politics and between constitutionalism and authoritarianism. Thailand could learn what not to do from Philippine experiences since the overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos 20 years ago.
 
In the Thai case, one might have thought at first glance that a new election, three years before time, was a reasonable way out for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is being challenged not by the loss of a parliamentary majority or by constitutional checks and balances, but by the politics of street protest. Shouldn't the ballot box, rather than the crowd in the capital, settle the issue? It is one of the advantages of a parliamentary system that elections can be brought forward to resolve crises.
 
As many Thais see it, however, the protests are not about the legitimacy of Thaksin's majority in Parliament but of what they allege as his personal abuses of power. These were made possible, they claim, in part by the way he has used his overwhelming position in Parliament to undermine institutions introduced in the 1997 constitution, which sought to check political corruption and populist authoritarianism.
 
Major opposition groups are threatening to boycott an election, which they see as a way for Thaksin to avoid addressing the specific issues of alleged abuse of power. Most recent of these was a change in investment rules that allowed his family to sell, without capital gains tax, its $1.8 billion interest in the Thai telecommunications giant Shin Corp. to a Singapore government company.
 
A fully contested election would probably award Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party and its allies a much reduced but workable majority. Thaksin has presided over economic recovery, flirts with a rather crude nationalism and is adept at money politics. But an opposition boycott combined with continued street protests in Bangkok is likely to prolong the crisis and put Thai democracy at risk.
 
Thaksin will not have forgotten the role of the metropolis in the changes of government in 1973 and 1992. A sustained impasse could result in a repeat of the kind of military intervention last seen in 1991, with the tacit backing of the monarchy and some of a Bangkok elite, which now despises Thaksin as much as it once despised the generals. Although the military's role in Thai society is now much diminished, it still sees itself as the ultimate guardian of national cohesion.
 
The Philippine armed forces, on the other hand, have never actually been in power. Marcos had a civilian administration but used the military for his own martial law purposes. Since his downfall 20 years ago, the military has merely been the source of several half-baked coup attempts by mid-ranking officers. Its top brass has been loyal to the president. It protected President Corazon Aquino and was follower, not leader, in the eviction of President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and the elevation of Vice President Gloria Arroyo.
 
The Philippine problem is not so much the military but contradictions between the ballot box, the constitution and the elite groups, which struggle among themselves for power and spoils but set the rules of the game to suit their own purposes. It was a meeting of minds of the church, big business and elite politicians that brought the masses onto the street to call for Estrada's ouster. These protests led to the judiciary consenting to the constitutionally dubious removal of Estrada.
 
On Friday, Arroyo used an alleged coup plot by military officers to declare a state of emergency. But Arroyo is less threatened by the military than by a wider belief that her 2001 installation was undemocratic and that her election in 2004 may have been the result of a fraudulent count after her intervention with the election commissioner. Even former Presidents Aquino and Fidel Ramos have deserted her. She can probably hold on for lack of credible alternatives, but the emergency decree is a sign of weakness.
 
Where the Philippine political system goes from here is anyone's guess. But Thais should bear in mind the Philippine experience as they assess the constitutional as well as personal issues in the struggle between Thaksin and his opponents. Successful democracy requires both that the verdict of the ballot box is respected and that the winner abide by broadly agreed rules of conduct and restraints on personal power.
 
 
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