1229: Sarawak – My other contact in the state reports:
Of the three by-election campaigns now underway, the most critical is that of Batang Ai in Sarawak.
Bukits Gantang and Selambau are both PR seats and their retaining those seats – although extremely critical – will reflect the electorate’s referendum on Umno’s recent assembly and how Umno undermined constitutional governance in Perak. PR winning both seats would only restore the status-quo ex-ante between both coalitions in Semenanjong. It goes without saying that losing any one or both of the seats would be a major blow to PR.
Batang Ai, however, is a whole different ballgame. Sarawak has long provided a crucial ‘fixed deposit’ of parliamentary seats to the BN thanks to local strongman and CM Abdul Taib Mahmud’s iron grip over patronage in the state! Any PR electoral inroads in Sarawak would pose a serious threat to the BN nation-wide, far bigger than if PR merely retained both Bukits in Semenanjong. Hence, BN’s determination to retain Batang Ai at all costs. Already, everything at the BN’s disposal – including instant noodles and the kitchen sink – has been thrown into the contest.
Batang Ai has long been a BN seat. Although the BN candidate is a local unknown, he has the massive BN machinery to help him win. The PR candidate is a popular five-term former BN MP who, after being dropped by the BN in 2008 given local party conflicts, has since moved his politics and his longhouse into PR. Campaigning together with the popular Batang Ai PKR division chief, they collectively pose a clear and present electoral danger to the BN.
Currently, throughout Sarawak there is deep anger and widespread antipathy among native Bumiputeras towards Abdul Taib Mahmud’s family’s corporate shenanigans. These Mahmud-linked companies enrich themselves and other BN cronies at the expense of native lands and livelihoods. As well, Batang Ai folk, many of whom were resettled by the Batang Ai dam 23 years ago, have been largely neglected and shortchanged by the BN ever since.
In the 2006 state election, the BN candidate only won by a mere 806 votes out of 5,784 total votes cast. Given the rising popularity of PKR in Batang Ai and throughout Sarawak, CM Abdul Taib Mahmud has to win – and win emphatically – to prove to big brother Umno that he still has what it takes for the state to continue grabbing native Bumiputera land and to preserve BN corporate interests. But, only if he wins BIG given the amount of resources and money the BN has already thrown and will continue to pour into the contest. Anything less and Abdul Taib Mahmud’s justifications to continue in office as manager of the BN’s ‘fixed deposit’ of parliamentary seats in Sarawak will be tenuous in the eyes of Umno. An ominous thought certainly for Taib Mahmud and his family!
Consequently, Batang Ai is a by-election in which the BN has everything to lose while PKR has everything to play for given their long-term game plan.
1222: Bukit Selembau – A record 13 independent candidates have been accepted along with the BN and PKR candidates. It is difficult to gauge the crowd size from the centre as vegetation blocks the view. But loud roars can be heard indicating large crowds. Three or four of the independent candidates appear to have sizeable entourages, but not as many as the two main candidates, with the crowd estimated at 10,000.
1216: Bukit Gantang – It’s a three-way fight here, with an independent joining the fray. There’s a huge crowd of 30,000-50,000, including some 2,000 ethnic Indian Pas supporters. Pakatan supporters easily outnumber the 6,000-odd BN supporters. The Pakatan supporters at a field nearby performed a ‘Mexican wave”. There was some tension and yelling when the Bagan Dato Adun from the BN mistakenly walked into the Pakatan area, but thankfully nothing happened. Overall, it’s been a festive atmosphere.
1146: Batang Ai – It’s all over. It’s a straight fight between BN and PKR. Supporters are slowly leaving.
1005: Batang Ai – An interesting development: A group of Pas supporters marches in and immediately 16 of their flags are confiscated. Dominique intervenes and Mafrel protests. After discussion with the CID head, the flags are returned. The candidates are still in the hall. It is scorching hot here. The SPR is close to making an announcement now and calling for objections, if any.
0933: Batang Ai – Malcom Mussen arrives with 1,000 supporters including Taib Mahmud and Peter Chin. PKR candidate also arrives, led by Khalid Ibrahim. Both candidates are in the hall now. Khalid bravely walks into the lions’ den and has tea with Taib Mahmud, Peter Chin, Dompok and Masing. The crowd has swelled with the BN side having 3,000 while PKR has 5,000.
0910: Bukit Selambau – PKR and BN supporters have been kept apart on the route to the centre. Dense vegetation separates the two sets of supporters on the roads to the centre, which lies in a park. The PKR candidate is already at the centre. Nine independent candidates have shown up. Waiting for the BN candidate to show up.
0908: Bukit Gantang – Thousands here. Prayers for goodwill. All PR parties represented.
o855: Batang Ai – Waiting for the candidates to arrive. An independent candidate might be joining the fray. A helicopter hovers overhead. BN supporters number around 500, while the Pakatan supporters are easily five times more and their number keeps increasing. Both sides engage in a war of words. But everything is orderly and the atmosphere, festive.
0822: Bukit Gantang – Festive mood in Taiping, reports my other contact. Buses with PKR supporters heading in. BN needs a miracle to win here.
0809: Batang Ai – Our arrival at the Lubuk Antu sports complex is greeted by a long line of FRU and police personnel. PKR and BN banners are already in the padang. A contingent of DAP supporters has marched in. PKR supporters are supporting “Reformasi n tiga kosong!” One single Pas flag seen among a sea of PKR and DAP flags.
0737: Batang Ai – My contact reports he is leaving the longhouse now for the nomination centre. In the area are about 500 people from out nearby towns, Sabah and the peninsula. Some of them had come to Bawin’s longhouse after the ceramah for a late night dinner. Imagine slaughtering chicken at 11.00pm! About 200 slept over. A few drank ijok and langkau until 4.00am. Will talk about Iban hospitality later. Huge jam ahead.