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The impact of the Barisan Alternatif (BA) upon the Indian segment of the electorate, needless to say, was much less. It is quite conceivable that the fracas over the selection of a Malay rather than an Indian candidate to represent the BA in an MIC-held constituency has some effect upon the vote.

Having said that, it should be acknowledged that even in the 1999 general elections the BA managed to secure only about 20 per cent of the Indian vote nationwide. There are many reasons that explain this.

It is perhaps true that a disenfranchised and marginalised community tends to gravitate towards authority for its protection and well-being. Nonetheless, towards polling day, a number of Indians were persuaded that the BA may be more sincere in fighting for their welfare than the BN (Barisan Nasional), especially the MIC, which had neglected their interests for decades.

The BA candidate obtained about 15 to 20 per cent of the Indian vote which, given the circumstances, was no mean achievement.

Apart from these community-based reasons for the BA's triumph, one should also emphasise that the willingness of the DAP and Keadilan leaders to repair and restore ties in the last 48 hours - following the squabble over candidacy - also enhanced the coalition's performance.

The show of solidarity between the two parties and within the BA not only demolished the BN's main weapon against the former but it also convinced fence-sitters that the opposition coalition was viable and cohesive.

Colossal liability

The BA was also better organised than in Teluk Kemang or Sanggang. It had an abundance of party workers, all of them volunteers. Its flags, banners and posters matched those of the BN. There was no dearth of vehicles to ferry voters on polling day.

For once, the BA's machinery was able to offer some resistance to the BN's overwhelming physical power and presence. Still, when the BN's 3Ms were taken into consideration - money, media and machinery - the BA just paled into insignificance.

However, the BN's fourth M - Mahathir Mohamad - turned out to be a colossal liability rather than a crucial asset. This worked to the BA's advantage.

So far we have examined some of the reasons for the BA's victory and the BN's defeat in Lunas. Now we shall try to analyse the significance of the Lunas verdict to Malaysian political development.

One, the politics of developmentalism has lost its impact upon the electorate. It is no longer possible to convince voters - even rural voters - that they should support the BN because only the BN can ensure development.

The people now know that it is the responsibility of the government of the day to bring about development. Development is the right of the people. There is no reason for them to be grateful to the government for development projects which, in any case, are financed by the sweat of their brow.

This is why desperate attempts by the BN government to surface roads and build latrines during the election campaign period were greeted with scorn and scepticism by the voters of Lunas.

Decency trampled

Two, Lunas also brought to the fore the whole question of leadership and governance. For the first time since the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998, both Malay and Chinese voters focused upon a single target: Mahathir Mohamad.

The reasons for focusing upon Mahathir may be different but the underlying concern is the same. Can we continue to put up with a leader whose utterances and actions have demeaned the dignity of both Malays and Chinese?

In this regard, the Malay voters of Lunas have gone further than their Chinese compatriots. They want Mahathir to quit. Never before in our history have Malay and Chinese voters come together in a state by-election, in such unison and with such vehemence, to repudiate the man at the helm of the nation for trampling upon the basic tenets of justice and decency.

Three, the repudiation of Mahathir by the voters of Lunas in his own home state is bound to have serious repercussions within Umno. Even in the 1999 general elections, Umno took a severe beating in Kedah. It lost 12 out of 36 state seats and eight out of the 15 parliamentary seats to PAS.

How long will Umno tolerate a leader who cannot defend the party's interests in his own state? Umno knows that one year after a general election in which Umno's Malay base was decimated - two Malay states and 32 Malay-majority parliamentary constituencies fell to BA hands - the erosion of Malay support from the party continues unabated.

If Mahathir who has been prime minister for 19 years clings on to power in spite of his growing unpopularity what are the consequences for Umno and the BN? For their own survival, if nothing else, other Umno leaders will have to act sooner than later.

When the first prime minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, was eased out in 1970 he had more support in his own state and within the party hierarchy and rank-and-file than Mahathir today.

Doctor is the disease

There are signs, however, to show that Umno is beginning to act. The fact that the Umno Supreme Council was forced to withdraw amendments to the party constitution which would have legitimised the leadership's desire to perpetuate its power as a result of overwhelming opposition from ordinary members shows that the grassroots have become alert to the grave danger posed by Mahathir's authoritarianism.

Party leaders are also speaking up openly against Mahathir. (They have been doing so privately for some time now). Newspaper columnists connected to Umno are urging the party to recognise the main cause of its decline.

To put it in a nutshell, a lot of influential elements in Umno now acknowledge the simple truth that ordinary Malaysians have realised for some time now - the doctor is the disease.

Four, there is another compelling reason why Umno should realise soonest that its future - and the future of the BN - is at stake. The Keadilan-BA victory in Lunas establishes beyond any shadow of doubt that the opposition is capable of capturing ethnically-mixed constituencies -constituencies which constitute the crux and the core of Umno-BN power.

The majority of parliamentary constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia, for instance, are ethnically-mixed, meaning by which, they are constituencies where 40 to 70 per cent of voters are Malays and the rest are Chinese and Indians.

In the Teluk Kemang by-election in June 2000 where the Keadilan-BA candidate managed to reduce the BN's majority by 40 per cent, and in a number of other ethnically-mixed parliamentary constituencies in the 1999 general elections which were lost narrowly, the BA proved that it is capable of putting up a credible performance in BN territory.

Tide of change

Five, the BN should fear the BA's potential for yet another reason. It is reckoned that the majority of new voters in the Lunas by-election supported the BA. Some election watchers even suggest that the percentage could be as high as 70.

This merely confirms what has been obvious all along. It is the young who are the driving force behind the reformasi movement. It is the young who yearn for change. Any movement for change that is supported by the young will succeed sooner or later. Neither Mahathir nor Umno nor the BN can stop the tide of change that is about to wash our shores.

Six, what is even more significant, Lunas reaffirmed a trend which has been slowly emerging since the late 80s. A multi-ethnic, loosely cobbled opposition is beginning to take shape and form.

It could well pave the way for the eventual emergence of an effective, multi-ethnic two coalition system. It is important to observe, in this connection, that the successful BA candidate in the Lunas by-election, Saifuddin Nasution, obtained 10,511 votes, half of which, it is estimated, was Malay and the other half, Chinese and Indian.

The BN contestant, S Anthonysamy, gained 9,981 votes, with substantial chunks of Malay, Chinese and Indian components in it. It shows that both the BA and BN have multi-ethnic support bases. In fact, in the 1999 general elections itself, it was apparent that the two coalitions had the support of all the communities, though in varying proportions.

Seven, Lunas not only established the multi-ethnic, multi-religious credentials of BA. It also revealed the extent to which BA leaders, members, supporters and even the voting populace had overcome some of seemingly insurmountable barriers separating the different communities.

Non-Muslims, mainly Buddhists or Confucianists, but also Hindus and Christians appeared to be less uneasy today with Islamic salutations and Koranic references than say three or four years ago.

At the same time, Malays (who are 100 percent Muslims) connected quite well with Chinese and Tamil phraseology and sloganeering. More important, both Muslims and non-Muslims empathised readily with the view that cultural and linguistic diversity was God's handiwork and respect for a person's language was an integral aspect of Islamic doctrine.

Harmonious relations

Until recently, not many Muslims, including PAS supporters, appreciated the breadth and depth of Islamic universalism vis-a-vis language and culture. Similarly, for many non-Muslim Chinese and Indians, the accommodative, inclusive Islamic approach to cultural and linguistic diversity which PAS and Keadilan speakers emphasised in their ceramahs, was something of a revelation.

Their speeches have helped to modify somewhat a perception prevalent within some sections of the non-Muslim community that Islam is a bigoted, intolerant religion. In that sense, at least, the BA has contributed a little to the elimination of certain religious and ethnic stereotypes which hamper and hinder harmonious community relations.

But the BA should not rest on its laurels. Even in the sphere of inter-religious and inter-ethnic ties, there are daunting challenges that lie ahead. Not the least of these is making each and every community feel that the BA is its home; that the BA is capable of protecting the rights and interests of even the most minuscule minority in the country.

It is important to emphasise this especially in light of the public squabble that developed over the choice of the candidate in the Lunas by-election.

By choosing a Malay candidate from Keadilan, the three BA parties - PAS, Keadilan and PRM - were not deliberately sidelining an Indian candidate from the DAP or marginalising the Indian community.

It was a strategic decision which sought to harness to the hilt, the growing antagonism towards Mahathir within the Umno rank-and-file; the pro-PAS-Keadilan mood in Kedah; and the advantage that Saifuddin had as the BA parliamentary candidate for Padang Serai, which includes the Lunas state seat, in the last general elections. Saifuddin in fact did rather well in the Lunas area.

Nonetheless, in the wake of the squabble over the Lunas seat, a serious misperception has developed about Keadilan's commitment to the interests and aspirations of the Indian minority.

As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious party devoted to justice and dignity for each and every community, Keadilan will have to address this issue. It is only by addressing the issue with courage and candour that Keadilan and the BA will be able to provide a viable alternative to the BN in 2004.

DR CHANDRA MUZAFFAR is the deputy president of Keadilan.