Thu, 09 Nov 2000

Asia faces political challenges

By Dan Beaulieu

HONG KONG (AFP): With three prominent Asian leaders facing possible impeachment, and several others merely beleaguered, the region faces a new wave of political instability, analysts agreed Tuesday.

But they doubted it would be as severe as the fall-out from the 1997 financial crisis which toppled several governments.

"The (1997) crisis which led directly to changes of governments in Indonesia, Korea and Thailand was catalytic," said Bob Broadfoot, managing director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (RESC) in Hong Kong.

"Now we're not seeing either a contagion or a catalyst, they're largely unrelated from one another. Maybe the best way to explain it is Murphy's Law," he said, that things eventually go wrong for all leaders.

In the Philippines, President Joseph Estrada is almost certain to be impeached and face a Senate trial for corruption over allegations he took eight million dollars in kickbacks from illegal gaming operations and tobacco taxes.

Taiwanese opposition legislators on Tuesday passed an amendment paving the way for an impeachment of President Chen Shui-bian over his scrapping of a 5.6-billion dollar nuclear power plant.

Opponents of Indonesia's President Abdurrahman Wahid are demanding a special assembly session to impeach the leader over allegations he is corrupt and mishandled both the economy and violent separatist conflicts.

Meanwhile Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Sunday faced his biggest anti-government demonstrations in more than six months from supporters of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

And Japan's Premier Yoshiro Mori's administration has been hit by scandals and gaffes that have dropped his public support to as low as 15 percent, according to a recent newspaper poll.

One danger to regional stability, analysts said, is that countries hit by the 1997 crisis could also be especially vulnerable to new political tremors.

"If you look back on the Asian financial crisis and the last political changes, Asian leaders did not fulfill their expectations to the electorate," said Michael Alan Hamlin, head of the Manila-based Team Asia consultancy.

"People really don't understand how the electorate feels empowered and have grown impatient with mediocrity," he said.

"People across the region have not forgotten the People Power revolution" which overthrew former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, he said.

Economically, the situation now does not resemble 1997, said Paul Alapat, regional economist for Nomura International in Hong Kong, pointing out that balances of payments, which sparked the previous crisis, are in better shape.

"In some countries, the balance of payments problem during the crisis in 1997 hit currencies by about 15 percent and caused a further capital flight, and then caused higher interest rates, then hit equity markets," he said.

That spiral is unlikely now, he said, but noted that "instability will lead to slower growth and greater domestic problems, like many bankruptcies, which will pressure governments."

"Now there's mostly an equity market sell-off," he said.

RESC's Broadfoot said one real danger for the region is that "we're having a lot of events happening at once," also pointing to the US elections and eventual changes at the State Department.

"The common thread is that it's a test of the countries' institutions," he said, especially legislative and legal systems called to follow through on impeachment proceedings.