On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Opposition eyes the next round

A further dent to its image was the public fallout
between the DAP and PAS over controversial statements made by PAS leaders,
including the ban on women taking part in Quran recital contests, separate
payment counters for men and women in supermarkets, and discouraging beautiful
women from working.

DAP leaders then openly criticised Keadilan over the choice of candidate for
Lunas. Pressure mounted on the DAP to leave the opposition front.

But the opposition victory in Lunas seems to have changed the mood. The DAP,
whether they wish to admit it or not, must have misread voter sentiments.

Except for the last lap, when DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang appeared at Lunas,
which could have helped garner some Chinese votes, the fact is Keadilan
successfully pulled the Chinese votes on its own.

With or without DAP, Keadilan and PAS must now believe that they can get
Chinese support if they adopt a populist approach.

They have learned from last year's general election – no community can win on
its own. For PAS, even playing the Islamic card isn't sufficient while for
Keadilan, the Anwar issue can only generate Malay interest.

This time, the opposition front backed the Chinese education movement on the
Vision Schools project.

Umno, the dominant Barisan party, seems unsure of what it should do. It needs
to stop the eroding Malay support but it should be cautious of trying too hard
to portray itself as the guardian of Malay rights and privileges. Neither
should it imitate PAS by becoming more Islamic.

Its strength, since independence, has been its moderation. Its politics of
compromise has been tested and well-accepted.

But it seems to have ignored the real grievances on the ground – calls for more
democratic space, transparency, openness and to fight corruption.

Unless the Umno leadership is prepared to tackle these issues head-on, the mood
isn't likely to change. The clock ticks on.

Malays who back the Opposition are not questioning Umno on Malay rights and
religion. They are seeking Umno's commitment and the willingness to listen to
ground feelings.

Last week, a group of university students, almost all Malays, attended a forum
on human rights organised by Suhakam at the Putra World Trade Centre.

A prominent figure who attended the function said he noticed that all the
students who spoke up were anti-establishment, criticising the Government

But what was of concern to him, he said, was that Umno Youth members who
attended the function did not remain long in the hall.

He felt that Umno Youth members should have listened to these students and,
perhaps, held discussions with them.

He said many of the Umno Youth leaders left after Foreign Minister Datuk Syed
Hamid Albar opened the forum.

The turnout of Keadilan members was not only bigger, according to him, but they
remained until the forum ended.

Recently, in a news interview, PAS president Datuk Fadzil Noor confidently
predicted that the Opposition could take over the federal government in the
next general election in 2004.

The Opposition may be riding high at this point and the Barisan appears
uncertain, in the eyes of the public, in reacting to the new challenges. But
anything can happen in four years.

The Chinese voters, while fluid, may not necessarily back the Opposition in a
general election.

In the case of Lunas, the stakes were small and the Chinese voters wanted to
send a message to the Government that their support should not be taken for
granted, that education was dear to them and that they were hurt by strong
statements against the educationists.

In a general election, where the stakes are high and the question of economy
and political stability comes into play, the Chinese voters may opt for status

The Government has shown its willingness to compromise by promising to
implement the more-acceptable Pupils Integration Plan, where national, Chinese
and Tamil schools within an area take turns to host competitions and
parent-teacher gatherings.

It will not be easy for the Opposition to win at least 90 parliamentary seats
in the 193-member Dewan Rakyat.

The Opposition now has 45 seats shared among PAS (27), DAP (10), Keadilan (5)
and PBS (3). To form a government, 97 seats are needed – a simple majority of the
total number of seats.

The Opposition has the best shot in the peninsula (145 seats), particularly in
Malay-majority states like Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Perlis and

It will be tough-going in Sabah and Sarawak, where PAS and Keadilan are virtually

In Sabah, the mostly-Christian voters are still wary of PAS while the PBS are
not interested in joining the Opposition.

Geographically, Sarawak is bigger than the peninsula. Unless the Opposition is
able to take campaigners by helicopter and boat into the interior, it can
forget about winning, let alone contest.

And in the interior, national issues used by the Opposition mean little to the

The most the Opposition can hope for is to win a few seats in the urban areas
with only the DAP having any real chance of making some gains.

The Opposition can seriously dent the Barisan campaign in the next round. It is
obviously banking on new voters, estimated at two million by 2004, and
political sentiments.

It certainly hopes that the Barisan will continue to use the same tired formula
of development.

If in the past many of us laughed off the opposition challenge as being remote,
we will now have to give it some attention.

Every statement, policy and decision made by both sides would have a bearing in
the next round.

The fight for 2004 has begun.