Levent Emirali wants to become the first Muslim in NSW Parliament. But the odds are against him. Standing in the Labor-held seat of Auburn, the Liberal candidate needs a 10 to 15 per cent swing.

Though Coalition spirits were buoyed when the Labor primary vote crumbled by 13 per cent in a byelection in September 2001, there are no certainties. Apart from the size of the swing needed, migrant groups do not vote as a single bloc and rarely do they swing on ethno-specific issues, ignoring issues of broader state and federal importance like education and health.

The chairman of the Community Relations Commission, Stepan Kerkyasharian, has never subscribed to the concept of a disciplined ethnic vote that cuts across lines of language and birthplace, and as far back as 1996 was sceptical of any leader who claimed to deliver a voting bloc.

That being said, the dynamics of this state election are like no other. The campaign is being conducted in the shadow of war in Iraq and rising community tensions. Sydney’s Muslims, known to vote reliably Labor, are being urged to reassess their vote and their support for leaders who speak for them in troubled times.

In brochures distributed through Sydney mosques in recent days, the Australian Muslim Lobby claims local Muslims hold sufficient numbers to influence the election outcome in at least a dozen seats controlled by Labor.

The AML, which denies any political affiliations, is recommending a vote for the Liberal Party in the Labor-held seats of Rockdale, Granville, Parramatta and Auburn, the Greens in Lakemba and the Unity Party in Bankstown.

Peter Wong, of the Unity Party, another candidate who hopes to harness the ethnic vote, senses a drift from Labor in recent years. Voters have become alienated by the stand the Premier, Bob Carr, has taken on ethnic gangs, by Labor’s onerous anti-terrorism laws and its reluctance to endorse Muslim candidates. Yet disillusionment with Labor may not translate into votes for the Opposition. The NSW Opposition Leader, John Brogden, is equally unpopular for his criticism of Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali and ethnic crime. The Federal Government’s crackdown on border protection has won the NSW Liberals friends as well as enemies in migrant communities.

“Given a choice between the two devils, they will pick Labor, that’s the message I’m getting,” says Wong. “But there is plenty of room for minor parties in this election.”

Wong’s Unity Party, formed as a counterpoint to One Nation, is running more than 40 candidates in the lower house and the Hong Kong-born Mayor of Burwood, Ernest Wong, heads a multicultural upper house ticket.

Ahmed Sokarno, the founder of Australia’s first bilingual Arabic newspaper, is running on the ticket of the Reform the Legal System Party.

There are diverse migrant communities, Asian and Arabic, to be wooed in Georges River, Ryde, Kogarah and Strathfield. All seats could fall if the swing is strongly against Labor.

The ranks of independents and peacenik Greens are finding a receptive audience among ethnic voters.

“Bob Brown is a popular name among Australian Muslims at the moment,” says a spokesman for the Lebanese Muslim Association, Keysar Trad.