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Transitional challenges in Southeast Asia
( 2003-08-21 16:22) (China Daily)

Between now and February 2005, Southeast Asia will experience a series of important democratic and transitional changes, which could affect the political stability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In the next 18 months, there will be landmark elections in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand and possibly a political transition in Singapore.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad will be stepping down in October, after the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit in Kuala Lumpur. Dr Mahathir will retire from politics after being at the helm of his country for almost 23 years; his successor, Dr Abdullah Badawi is scheduled to take over and lead the country into general elections within the next 12 months, as Malaysia is constitutionally required to hold elections before November 2004.

According to political analysts, the elections could come as early as the first quarter of next year, as the country continues to experience an economic boom. The Malaysian economy should grow by at least 5 per cent this year. The main challenge for Abdullah will be to successfully "recover" the Malay vote, which conspicuously deserted the ruling Malay party and coalition in 1999, following the saga of disgraced former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Now that political controversies within the Malaysian Chinese Association, Malaysia's principal Chinese party, have also been resolved, there is every likelihood of seeing solid Malaysian Chinese support for Abdullah and the ruling coalition next year. Abdullah's ability to mobilize substantial political support from all the different races will be key to his own political consolidation after the elections.

The year 2004 will be a crucial political year for Indonesia, which will hold two landmark elections in the year. There will be legislative elections in April, followed by two rounds of presidential elections, most probably in August and October.

Next year will in fact be the first time that Indonesia holds presidential elections via direct universal suffrage, thanks to Indonesia's crucially important post-Suharto constitutional amendment.

The importance of such elections in Indonesia is connected to the ability to maintain stability in this vast country, which faces enormous economic, financial and social strains, as well as the threat of terrorism and potential political instability.

Key to these elections will be the future place of political Islam in Indonesia and a new consensus on the role of Islam in Indonesian society, especially the demand by radical Muslim groups to impose the shariah or Islamic law on the country.

Obviously, this issue would also be linked to the Jakarta authorities' fight against terrorism, as the latest bomb blast at the Marriott in Jakarta has again shown.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri is seeking election against a myriad of contenders from across both the Muslim and secular political spectrum, and her victory cannot be taken for granted, although she appears to be the best placed candidate at this point in time. Megawati has given a dose of stability to Indonesia so far, but many are looking to her to bring further economic impetus and social stability to Indonesia as well.

After the recent military mutiny in Makati, in central Manila, the Philippines is entering a period of political campaigning prior to the presidential and congressional elections next April.

In fact, the short-lived military mutiny of 300 young officers highlighted the fragility of the Philippine political and democratic system, especially when many of the population and elected officials sympathized openly with the rebel soldiers. This mood of uncertainty was aggravated by the announcement some months ago that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would not seek re-election next year; however, there appears to be some hesitation in her stance lately.

Moreover, the Philippines faces a threat of continuous instability as cronies of past regimes (from Ferdinand Marcos to Joseph Estrada) are still trying openly to overthrow the present administration, as the latest mutiny has also apparently proven.

As the country openly engages itself in political campaigning in the coming months, there are worries that the Philippine economy could falter as political jostling and uncertainties increase.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand is probably the most secure in political terms today amongst his Southeast Asian peers, as Thailand looks forward to legislative elections in February 2005.

After having built a powerful party and political coalition, centred around his Thai Rath Thai (TRT) Party, the Thai PM has successfully advocated strong economic nationalism, based on boosting domestic consumption and demand.

The Thai economy is strong and sound, and economists today project a 5-6 per cent economic growth rate for 2003; national confidence is buoyant, especially after Thailand successfully paid back its IMF loan last month, two years ahead of schedule.

This "feel good" sentiment should help garner impressive political support for Thaksin in February 2005, as political, economic and social stability continue in Thailand.

There could also be a political transition in Singapore next year.

Although Singapore's general elections are not due till late 2006 or the beginning of 2007, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong officially announced during the National Day Rally on August 17 that he would step down before 2005 and let his deputy, BG Lee Hsien Loong, take over as Prime Minister for two years before leading the People's Action Party (PAP) into the next general elections.

There could be democratic or transitional changes and challenges in all the five original members of ASEAN within the next 18 months. Undoubtedly, this period will be crucial to the cohesion and continuous development of ASEAN, as political stability in Southeast Asia will undoubtedly be at the forefront of concern for the whole Asia-Pacific and East Asian region.

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