LUBOK ANTU, 25 March 2009: With the state polls in Sarawak due by 2011, the much anticipated by-election in the Batang Ai state constituency is regarded by many political watchers as a “test case” between the Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
As this sleepy rural border bazaar gears up for the expected economic windfall during the campaign period leading to polling day on 7 April, the bigwigs from both sides will lend their much-needed support and time to ensure victory.
Even as the nation’s attention is focused on two other by-elections in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary constituency in Perak and Bukit Selambau state seat in Kedah, which are also being held the same day, a victory in this Iban-majority seat will be a morale booster for the victor in what is anticipated to be a formidable fight.
In the case of the ruling four-member BN coalition, another thumping win would be a gauge of its status quo as a BN bastion besides weakening PKR’s attempts to make inroads into a previously untested territory, an observer told Bernama.
With the Ibans comprising 95% of the 8006 registered voters, it is said that the small but crucial number of Chinese and Malays voters will be the deciding factor in this 1,341 sq km constituency, better known as the site of the Batang Ai hydro-electric dam.
The BN candidate, Malcolm Mussen Lamoh, 49, an engineer with the state Agriculture Department, will be challenged by five-time former Member of Parliament for Lubok Antu Jawah Gerang, 55, who joined PKR after he was not fielded by the BN in last year’s general election.
Mussen was the sole candidate recommended by Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) while Jawah was picked over another contender, Sarawak PKR deputy chief Nicholas Bawin, 51, who lost narrowly by 806 votes to BN incumbent Datuk Dublin Unting Ingkot in the May 2006 state polls under a Sarawak National Party (Snap) ticket.
Blogger Johnny Chuat, 38, publisher of a well-known Iban cultural, educational and entertainment magazine, is also expected to join in the fray as an independent candidate.
The Election Commission has set 29 March for nominations. The seat fell vacant following the death of Dublin, 55, the four-term state assemblyman and PRS vice-president, on 24 Feb after being in a coma due a stroke in May last year.
Although Jawah, noted for being vocal on issues affecting the Dayaks, is said to have hardcore grassroot supporters, Lubok Antu MP William Nyalau Badak is confident of BN’s chances in retaining Batang Ai, one of two state seats under his parliamentary constituency. The other is Engkilili.
“The people know very well that only the BN elected representatives have the capacity to approve minor rural projects and bring development to their areas,” he said when met at the Lubok Antu Sports Complex here after presenting welfare said worth RM54,235 to 236 recipients from Batang Ai.
Asked if independent candidates could split the votes, he said they might take away the votes from the opposition in favour of the BN.
Chief Minister and state BN chairman Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, in endorsing Mussen, had said that he would make a good elected representative and was an asset to the Iban community despite being a greenhorn in politics.
Meanwhile, villager Kerti Ikan, 53, from Rumah Tutong in Nanga Telaus, Lubok Antu, who accompanied her elderly father to receive welfare aid, said the BN was a caring government and had a good track record in the area.
However, it remains to be seen whether PKR’s efforts to capitalise on emotional issues like native customary rights land and Dayak rights will translate into votes for the opposition.
At present there are 71 state seats in Sarawak and Batang Ai traditionally belongs to PRS, the offshoot of deregistered Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS). — Bernama