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    there was concern that the goveenmrnt’s public spending program might be stalled.Over the weekend, voters apparently sent the message that they now want a more sophisticated approach to nation-building and governance. “The people have expressed in no uncertain terms that they want accountability, transparency, and the rule of law,” said Anwar Ibrahim, de facto leader of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR).A swing away from the BN was widely expected among Indian and Chinese voters, who have felt increasingly marginalized by a long-standing affirmative action program known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), which benefits the majority Muslim Malays over minority Chinese and Indians, and the more assertive role Islam has been given during Abdullah’s term.The Chinese-majority state of Penang fell to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) after 36 years of BN rule and several BN Indian leaders, including long-time cabinet member Samy Vellu, lost their seats. Less anticipated, however, was the large deflection of Muslim Malay voters to the opposition camp. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which leads the BN coalition, has long fashioned itself as the protector of ethnic Malay interests.It had until now maintained political support by instilling fears, reiterated in the run-up to Saturday’s polls, that a vote for the opposition would divide and weaken the nation. However, many Malays proved undaunted, joining hands with Indians and Chinese to punish Abdullah’s administration for failing to tackle corruption, crime and inflation.BN was routed in the Malay-majority states of Kedah and Kelantan, while in many areas Malay support for UMNO was not much more than 55%, according to Ibrahim Suffian, program director of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. That significant numbers of Malays, Chinese and Indians voted for the opposition, despite the UMNO’s fearmongering claims, will lessen the likelihood that discord will play out along racial lines.It is not clear whether and how UMNO will respond to the democratic setback. The tendentious party has been known to react unkindly when its stranglehold on power has been threatened. In 1999, for instance, when PAS won the rural eastern state of Terengganu, then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad later deprived the state of development funds. He also restricted publication and distribution of the party’s newspaper Harakah. After enacting its revenge, the UMNO won the politically contested state back in 2004.Voter rejection of the BN this time is more encompassing, not only cutting across racial lines but also along rural and urban ones. The results also signal to Malaysians – long trained to think otherwise – that they possess the ability to check official abuses.Abdullah in the hot seatAfter the resounding setback, some believe the UMNO’s first order of business may be to pressure Abdullah to resign – perhaps opening the door for his deputy Najib to take over the party’s leadership. A spokesman for Abdullah said he has no plans to step down, and on Sunday senior UMNO leaders met at the premier’s official residence to show their support for him. He was swiftly sworn in as premier on Monday morning through UMNO’s and the BN’s simple majority.Yet even Abdullah’s resignation would not necessarily restore the UMNO’s and BN’s legitimacy, which the opposition has in the past pointed out is manufactured by opportunistic gerrymandering. The ruling coalition’s Indian and Chinese component parties are now widely seen as UMNO tokens, with their leaders cushioning their positions at the expense of their constituencies.The UMNO, meanwhile, has in many voters’ eyes become synonymous with mediocrity, feudalism, racism and patronage. The party’s young rising stars were expected to adopt a more progressive approach, but to many they have become indistinguishable from the old guard, which in turn has eroded public confidence in the UMNO’s ability to reform itself. Mahathir, for one, has accused Abdullah’s son-in-law and UMNO deputy youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin of being emblematic of this trend and said that he “played a big role” in the BN’s losses over the weekend.It’s perhaps telling of the mood in Malaysia that Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin – dubbed the “misinformation” minister by the opposition – lost his parliamentary seat in Kedah, while the popular critical blogger Jeff Ooi won the Jelutong parliamentary seat with DAP. The goveenmrnt had leveraged the traditional media it tightly controls to report that Malaysia is an economic miracle, respected by the world and breezing toward developed country status under visionary BN rule.Web portals and blogs like Ooi’s, however, have exposed Malaysians to the country’s less flattering realities and awakened many Malaysians to the fact that becoming a developed country will require replacing the political culture of mediocrity and impunity.Saturday’s results may pave the way for that shift. Both the opposition and the BN will feel the pressure to perform: the opposition has been given a precious opportunity and the BN can no longer take the public’s allegiance for granted.Incoming chief minister of Penang and DAP secretary general Lim Guan Eng’s sober victory address to reporters on Sunday morning suggested that he is not underestimating the hard work ahead.Opposition icon Anwar, meanwhile, said he plans to start assisting the opposition to form goveenmrnts in the states it now controls. A politically motivated corruption charge prevents him from running until next month, though it is expected that another member of the party – perhaps his daughter, who won a seat and has expressed some reluctance to enter politics – will step aside so he can contest in a by-election.New winds of democracy are expected to blow through Parliament as well, where the BN’s dominance had in the past all but turned the legislative branch into a rubberstamp of the executive. Dissenting voices will now be harder to ignore in Parliament, which under a previously unassailable BN majority lacked a culture of debate and accountability.As opposition leaders hailed Saturday’s results, the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur have been eerily quiet – as perhaps they should be out of respect for the country’s still fragile social balance and during what amounts to a traumatic moment for some in a society that is not accustomed to genuine democratic change. If the BN and citizenry handle the transition gracefully, Malaysia will have taken an all-important step in its political development.Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer.

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