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Which way in Batang Ai?

LUBOK ANTU, 5 April 2009: It is now almost time to wrap up the campaigning in Batang Ai, but the precious days before Tuesday are still being milked to the fullest by both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

The BN’s flagbearer is engineer Malcolm Mussen Lamoh, 49, who is taking on five-term former BN parliamentarian Jawah Gerang, 55, of PKR.

Seldom has this quaint frontier town of Lubok Antu seen a constantly swelling crowd the way it has over the past two weeks.

Nomination day itself on 29 March had its many history-making moments with the presence of two chief ministers, from Sarawak and Selangor, and the sight of two well-known Sabahan brothers — Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan and Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan — sitting far apart from each other.

There was also heavy demand for accommodation and a thick presence of police personnel.

Then there was an intending independent candidate who was all gung-ho about contesting but never got to submit his nomination paper although he and his seconder and proposer had entered the nomination centre.

Of course, the thousands of cheering or jeering supporters from both sides will be the subject of debates and discussions in the months to come.

PKR’s campaign

PKR is generally perceived to be using the by-election to test its acceptance among the Ibans. A win will mean the party can contest in more Iban majority seats in the coming election.

“A win against the all powerful BN will be an iconic win,” said Paul Kadang, a PKR campaign official.

Apart from accusing the BN of being greedy and corrupt, PKR has also been utilising the native customary right (NCR) land development issue to woo the 8,006 voters of whom 95% are Ibans.

“We have articulated to the PKR headquarters that we will use this issue to the fullest in Batang Ai,” said Nicholas Bawin, PKR director of operations for the by-election.

Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) president Datuk Seri Dr James Jemut Masing said PKR had erred in conducting its campaign in a very aggressive manner, by shouting and cursing in front of the mild-mannered and affable rural folks.

“They are obviously not used to this kind of demeanour,” he said.

Cost of elections

PKR is also facing problems in terms of funds, a fact that Kadang readily admitted.

Funds are needed to campaign here where a large number of voters are scattered in more than 150 longhouses. Those in the hinterland like in Ulu Engkari take almost eight hours to reach by longboat.


A longhouse in Batang Ai (Pic by tajai @ Flickr)

The Election Commission itself is spending no less than RM400,000.

Petrol bills alone are quite substantial given that an estimated 6,400 folks are reachable by roads and about 1,600 others in the interior by the Delok, Lemanak and Engkari rivers.

Support

PKR’s Jawah is banking on the support in his and Bawin’s traditional strongholds of Engkari Ulu, Engkari Ili and around the Batang Ai Resettlement Scheme Phase Two.

The BN meanwhile has been relentless in its assault in all areas in the constituency.

“We don’t consider any area to be white, grey or black. We move into all areas to ensure nothing short of a convincing win for Mussen,” said Second Minister of Resource Planning Datuk Amar Awang Tengah, one of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB)’s most vocal non-Iban campaigners.

The BN’s campaign received a big morale boost yesterday when Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin flew in to assist in Jawah’s defeat.

Today, more VIPs are trooping in, including Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek, Unity, Culture, Arts

and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar and several others.

Optimism


Jawah Gerang (Pic by Wong Chin
Huat)
Analysts said that although PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim came to help Jawah, he lost his vintage charisma when campaigning in a totally different atmosphere and to a different crowd more enthusiastic about bread and butter issues than that of reform.

They said that most older rural folks — and their numbers are quite sizeable — would still go for the dacing (BN’s symbol) as it was synonymous with development projects.

But some are quite impressed with Jawah’s fiery rhetoric that he would act as the protector of their lands against alleged injustices.

Some educated youngsters will find the call for Dayak nationalism very hard to resist.

There is expressed optimism in both camps that their respective candidates will win but for the moment the cheer is the loudest in the BN camp.

As Dr James put it: “We have cleaned all the grey and black areas. I can tell you we can win with a very comfortable majority but I am not going to tell you by how much, certainly not for the benefit of the gamblers.” — Bernama

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