Sunday, May 2, 2010

Dayaks hold the key to Sibu by-election

By Joseph Sipalan

Barely days after the heated by-election of Hulu Selangor, and Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat are gearing up to lock horns again, this time over the Sibu parliamentary by-election.

Although the official campaigning period only starts in 10 days, neither side is taking any chances.

Election Commission rules forbid open canvassing for votes before nomination day, which falls on May 8. However its silence on “social” visits or gatherings gives parties a handy loophole to jump-start the race.

BN component party SUPP got a head start with their candidate Robert Lau Hui Yew, who has gone out of his way to meet the Iban and Melanau communities living in longhouses along the Batang Igan river.

DAP followed hot on their heels, choosing to kick-off their social programme in town. They hosted a dinner last night to officially introduce their candidate, Sarawak DAP chief and Bukit Assek assemblyperson Wong Ho Leng.

The early start to the contest is to be expected, considering the long rivalry between the two parties in Sibu, historically known as Merling before the arrival of the first “White Rajah” James Brooke.

But it is SUPP who appears to be getting off on the right foot with their move to court the Dayak voters from the start, if recent voting trends in the state is any indication.

In Dayak hands

The ethnic breakdown of the 54,695 registered voters in the constituency gives insight into SUPP’ strategy.

azlanBernama recently reported that the racial makeup of the electorate is 66.7 percent Chinese (or 36,389 voters). The second largest majority comprises Ibans and other indigenous peoples at 22.1 percent (12,050 voters), while Malays make up 10.5 percent (5,740 voters) and Indians 0.1 percent.

In the 2008 general elections, the late Robert Lau Hoi Chew earned 19,138 votes to win the seat for BN, securing a 3,235-vote majority over Wong’s tally of 15,903.

During that contest, the low voter-turnout of just 67.77 percent and the narrow differential between the final tallies indicate that neither party has a comfortable margin of support from the majority Chinese voters, many of whom are of Foo Chow descent.

This makes the Dayaks, with the Ibans and other indigenous tribes, a critical factor, provided the prospective suitors are willing and able to convince them to turn out in force to cast their ballots.

The Dayaks reside in rural and remote areas, and generally don’t come out in numbers to vote due to the logistic challenges they face just to reach their nearest polling stations.

DAP at disadvantage

DAP has a real disadvantage with this community as the Dayak voters have shown a tendency to favour their traditional coalition of choice, the Barisan Nasional.

The Batang Ai state by-election in April 2009 perfectly illustrated the challenges faced by any opposition party in such a constituency.

In that contest, whose electorate was 95 percent Iban, political debutante Malcolm Mussen Lamoh of PBB secured 3,907 votes against the 2,053 garnered by former five-term Lubok Antu MP Jawah Gerang from PKR.

batang ai by election anwar campaign 020409 04Firstly, Malcolm’s winning margin of 1,854 votes more than doubled the 860-vote majority for BN earned his predecessor, the late Dublin Unting, in the 2006 state elections.

Secondly, only 74.44 percent of the 8,006 registered voters in the constituency, located in the Sri Aman district, turned out to cast their ballot.

Still hope for opposition

Despite this, Sibu is not a lost cause for DAP. After all, the party did win the seat once before in 1982 when Ling Sie Ming defeated one-time SUPP president Wong Soon Kai, albeit by a very slim 141-vote majority.

Pakatan may also have a trump card in their newest addition to the family – locally-based opposition party Sarawak National Party (Snap).

Taking into account their pedigree as one of the oldest surviving political parties in Sarawak, the one-time BN component party could provide the much-needed link to the Dayak electorate, but not without some baggage in tow.

edwin dundangSnap, currently led by Edwin Dundang Bugak, contested in 29 of the 71 state seats in 2006, winning only the Engkilili seat in the Sri Aman district through their candidate Johnical Rayong.

Johnical subsequently abandoned his party not long after winning the seat, declaring himself a ‘BN-friendly’ independent.

Their track record begs the question if they can effectively secure Dayak support in the upcoming by-election, not to mention the state elections that could be called anytime within the next year.

Snap test

The new partnership between Snap and PR promises to give the Opposition better leverage in terms of organisation and campaign machinery in their bid to significantly break the BN stranglehold on Sarawak.

The upcoming by-election is likely to test that promise to the limit.

Whatever the outcome, the contest will give a good indication of whether DAP’s new slogan for this contest, “Sibu leads the change,” will herald the dawn of a re-invigorated political arena in the state, and whether Sarawak’s electorate is ready to take national issues head on.


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