Political turmoil leaves Asean vulnerable

Political turmoil leaves Asean vulnerable

A wave of leadership crises plagues Asean nations, making it increasingly difficult for the region to combat old and new challenges as a bloc. Interconnected, plural societies are fraught with ethnic and political tensions that distract governments from effective cooperation.
A wave of leadership crises plagues Asean nations, making it increasingly difficult for the region to combat old and new challenges as a bloc. Interconnected, plural societies are fraught with ethnic and political tensions that distract governments from effective cooperation.

Due to a mixture of misfortune and mortality, Southeast Asia is now as volatile as it was when the Asian Financial Crisis struck in 1997, as we witness a series of unconnected leadership crises across the region.

These crises exacerbate more fundamental problems: entrenched vested interests, rampant corruption, and poorly integrated plural societies. Add to this growing ethnic and religious tensions and the threat of violent extremism and it makes for a combustible brew.

President Joko Widodo's victory in last year's polls lulled many to believe in the country's triumph over the so-called dark forces of its repressive military past. The former Jakarta governor with a reputation for populism was helping Indonesia make its final turn onto the road of democracy. Instead, he met a brick wall.

Mr Widodo's nemesis is not the majority opposition bloc in parliament; it is the leadership of his own political party. Mr Widodo ran for president under the banner of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. He is beholden to her, but was dealt a body blow when he accepted her choice of a new police chief, a candidate who was promptly declared a suspect by the national anti-corruption agency.

When the police took revenge and forced the resignation of the agency's top officials, Mr Jokowi's ratings slumped, as he was powerless to do anything but stand by and watch until he finally rejected Ms Megawati's pick.

As Mr Widodo struggles to rekindle his anti-corruption credentials, the opposition bloc in parliament may not be able to resist the chance to topple him through impeachment, setting the stage for political chaos.

In Malaysia, avuncular Prime Minister Najib Razak hung on to rule after nearly losing a gruelling election to the opposition coalition led by the popular reformist gadfly Anwar Ibrahim.

Mr Anwar was jailed for sodomy earlier this year, seriously destabilising his opposition party's platform. But then along came scandal in the shape of lurid allegations of financial mismanagement of 1MDB, an investment fund overseen by Mr Najib.

Now the stage is set for a potential internal revolt that could see Mr Najib ousted by his own party, the United Malays National Organisation. The resulting calls for accountability will breathe more life into the opposition, and mass protests are likely to erupt in a bid to force a pardon for Anwar.

Further north, in Thailand, a military junta struggles to convince the Thai people and the rest of world that it is working hard to restore democracy.

It's not the martial law imposed since May 2014 that presents the biggest threat to the country's stability. More worrying is the determination of a handful of misguided conservatives to re-engineer the political system to allow government by the unelected.

More fundamentally, the military struggles to find a leader with the charisma and popularity to replace Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as leader in 2006, while the much-revered monarch is in frail health. 

To the east, the affable President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines faces a turbulent end to his generally constructive term of office. Coup rumours surfaced in February after it emerged that Mr Aquino had either not been properly informed of a botched counter terror raid on an Islamic militant camp in Southern Mindanao or had failed to properly respond to it.

In their haste to track down and kill a pair of high-value terrorist suspects, the police failed to notify either the military or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which controls the area under a ceasefire arrangement. The resulting firefight cost the lives of almost 50 police commandos and threatened to torpedo nearly two decades of peace talks to end the war in Mindanao.

At the centre sits Singapore, the tiny island republic that has defied all predictions of marginalisation. Modern Singapore long ago abandoned hopes of remaining a competitive place to manufacture hi-tech machinery, and instead became a super-efficient banking and services hub.

But underpinning its stability and predictability is the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), with a strong grip on a modestly democratic system. In recent years, the PAP has lost a small number of seats to a nascent but still rather tame opposition.

Yet all the political micro-managing rests on the enduring influence of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who until very recently played an active role in government. At 91, Mr Lee is now gravely ill and on life support.

Given the political turbulence rippling across Southeast Asia, it is more important than ever for more effective cooperation under the Asean framework to ensure as far as possible a benign social, economic and security environment. Even more so as 2015 is due to unveil an Asean Economic Community.

The distractions of leadership crises dilute Asean cohesion and effectiveness, making Southeast Asia vulnerable to external predation and interference. With the US distracted by the Middle East and Russia, the region is increasingly at the mercy of a more assertively nationalistic Japan and aggressively intrusive China.

Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Singapore. The article was first published in The Edge Review, Malaysia.

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