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PKR may find it tough in Batang Ai

KUALA LUMPUR, 1 April 2009: Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) hopes to pull off an upset in the Batang Ai by-election, having done so once before in the urban seat of Padungan during the 2006 Sarawak state election.

But a repeat performance may not be on the cards as many political observers say the party faces an uphill battle this time around.

Batang Ai, which has been regarded as the ancestral home of the Iban community, has 8,006 registered voters with 95% of them Iban.

The last time the Opposition won against the Barisan Nasional (BN) in Batang Ai was in 1991, where the now-defunct Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) was the opposition party in Sarawak but was regarded as a BN component at the federal level.

PBDS had fielded the late Dublin Unting Ingkot who, even as a rookie, won by a slim majority of 86 votes against BN’s Mikai Mandau at the height of the then “Dayakism Agenda” at that time.

This by-election in Batang Ai, also dubbed as the battle of two “rentap” or “violent pulls”, is definitely interesting. Can the 1991 feat be repeated by PKR?

Malcolm Mussen (Source:
The BN has nominated an engineer, Malcolm Mussen Lamoh, while former five-term MP for Lubuk Antu, Jawah Gerang, has been picked by PKR to wrest the seat.

According to observers, PKR is already stretched very thin in terms of election resources due to the fact that three by-elections are being held simultaneously this time, the two others being in Bukit Gantang in Perak and Bukit Selambau in Kedah.

Opposition Leader and PKR de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim himself acknowledged that it would be tough contesting three by-elections at one go.

Although PKR only has candidates in Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai, it is still mobilising its resources in Bukit Gantang as part of its commitment to the PKR-DAP-PAS coalition.

For PKR, it feels that it has a chance in Batang Ai to show its relevance in Sarawak, particularly in gathering momentum for the next state election.

But the fact remains that it does not have strong election machinery in Sarawak and has to rely heavily on its national leaders to campaign.

Anwar (in white) with PKR candidate Jawah Gerang on his left, during a visit to Jawah’s longhouse
(Pic by Wong Chin Huat)

Logistical nightmare

The issue of logistics is the least of the problems for the BN, said local Sarawakian blogger Tedewin Ngumbang.

“Upon reaching Kuching International Airport, they (PKR leaders) will have to travel by road to Lubok Antu and from there to various longhouses criss-crossing Batang Ai, and, depending on the roster, they will have to cross “another sea” of the vast Batang Ai dam into the Delok and Engkari or the Lamanak (rivers) in the eastern part of this rural state constituency,” he wrote in a posting on his blog, borneo-warrior.

Tedewin, or better known by the pen name “Borneo Warrior”, said that in terms of logistics there will be very limited accommodation and food outlets unless the campaigners want to stay at the expensive Hilton Batang Ai located on the other side of the giant lake.

“Halal food? Almost none anywhere in Lubok Antu!” he said.

But for the BN, he said, these would be the least of its problems as it has various accommodations such as the Sesco Township bungalows, government quarters and Klingkang Inn in Lubok Antu.

In terms of mobility, there are helicopters to ferry the campaigners to the more remote areas.

“The odds will be heavily stacked against PKR. The logistics, operations and the administration of the campaign will be nightmarish, to say the least. PKR can never match the Sarawak BN in these areas,” said Tedewin.

The road leading to Jawah Gerang’s longhouse, which has not been developed in the five terms
that he was Lubuk Antu MP (Pic by Wong Chin Huat)

Tedewin, a former police officer, also pointed out that it was always very difficult to capture a seat that has been held by the incumbent state government for many terms, and even more so in a by-election.

Even PKR’s partner, DAP, seems to agree that it will be a very tough battle for PKR in rural Sarawak.

“I don’t think any propaganda of the Pakatan, such as about fairness, justice and democracy, will have any impact. Logistics are definitely a problem. In the state election, the focus will be less as compared to this by-election when all the (election) machinery will focus on that particular seat. This is totally a different ball game all together,” said Sarawak DAP secretary Chong Chien Jen.

Political barameter

But, no matter how tough it would be, the political operatives know that it is hard to write off Batang Ai as it would be an important political barometer in Sarawak.

“If PKR can win with a comfortable majority, then the 16 Sept (takeover date) will happen one year later. However, it is still very tough and difficult for PKR,” said DAP strategist and MP for Bukit Bendera Liew Chin Tong.

Voon Lee Shan (Source:
Liew’s counterpart in the Sarawak DAP, Voon Lee Shan, who is the state assemblyperson for Batu Lintang, said Batang Ai would be a testing ground for what he terms as the emergence of “Iban Baru” or the “New Iban” spirit”.

For PKR’s top leaders, at least on paper, they argue that they still have a fair chance. PKR Information Chief Tian Chua said that based on the results of the last two elections in Batang Ai — the last Sarawak state election and last year’s general election — the voting pattern seemed to indicate that PKR has a fighting chance despite the logistics and financial challenges.

For the BN, its strengths are the polling districts of Sbangki (Dublin’s longhouse), Lubok Antu town, Skarok, Kaong, Melaban, Kumpang, Neng, Ensawang, Kutai, Mepi and Ng Patoh.

The BN will pull through as it has many advantages, including a good candidate in Malcolm Mussen, who is a well-liked person with the necessary credentials, said BN’s Kapit MP Alexander Nanta Linggi.

“We hope to be able to convince the people but of course on BN’s part, it has to do more, such as listening closely to grouses from the people. The time has come for the BN to really take the opportunity to improve things and address the people’s grouses,” he said. — Bernama

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