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DEMOCRACY ON THE HIGH WIRE



Published: Thu, May 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: Two Southeast Asian nations with a combined population of nearly 300 million people are engaged in political balancing acts that may determine whether democracy survives in their region. Recently, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who led a not entirely legal ouster of her corrupt predecessor in January, found herself struggling to beat off another people-powered coup attempt. The Indonesian parliament, meanwhile, took a further step toward removing its incompetent but democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid -- a move that threatens to provoke an even greater outburst of violence. In both countries the question is whether weak democratic leaders can cope with daunting challenges to order without violating democratic norms themselves.

Both the Philippines and Indonesia had the misfortune of democratically choosing poor leaders at a time when they could least afford them. Joseph Estrada, the Philippine president replaced by Arroyo, wrecked the economy while allegedly collecting tens of millions of dollars in bribes and rake-offs from numbers rackets. Wahid, though linked to a couple of cases of alleged corruption, is mainly guilty of malfeasance; he has failed to cope effectively with any of the multiple crises afflicting his huge nation, including a prolonged economic slump, separatist violence and human rights abuses by the military. Both presidents alienated the political, military and business elites of their nations, as well as would-be supporters in the West and international financial institutions. And yet both retain large bases of public support, especially among the poor.

Impeachment: Therein lies the political dilemma. Estrada and Wahid plunged their nations into chaos, but removing them could put democracy even more at risk -- especially if legal corners are cut. That's what happened in Manila, where Estrada was forced from the presidential palace after a legal impeachment trial stalled in the Philippine Senate. Arroyo, who was the duly elected vice president, succeeded in taking office and seemed to have restored order -- only to face a rebellion last week that mirrored her own, led by politicians and military officers but backed by crowds. Her tough response, which included a declaration of a "state of rebellion," risks polarizing the nation still further.

With legislative elections only two weeks away, Arroyo must now move quickly to restore confidence in her government and the country's democratic institutions. A first step would be to lift the state of emergency as well as any arrest orders pending against opposition leaders not guilty of specific crimes. Indonesia's politicians, meanwhile, could learn something from their neighbor as they contemplate whether to instigate a formal impeachment proceeding against Wahid.




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