By Tony Thien, Malaysiakini
Unting, a Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) vice-president, did not recover from a coma after collapsing from a stroke last May. He died at 1.26am today at a private medical centre in Kuching.
A by-election must be held for a seat if the vacancy - either through death or resignation - occurs more than 24 months to the date of the next state election.
Sarawak last held its state election in 2006, and the next one is only due in May 2011. Unlike other states, Sarawak does not hold its election in tandem with the general election.
In the last state election, Unting was re-elected to Batang Ai after a stiff challenge from Nicholas Bawin Anggat, who contested the state constituency on behalf of opposition Sarawak National Party (Snap).
Unting, who polled 3,295 votes, defeated Bawin (2,489 votes) by 806 votes. The voter turnout was 73.2 percent. Ibans make up 95 percent of the electorate.
Batang Ai is one of the two state seats within the Lubok Antu parliamentary constituency - the other is Engkilili, which was won by Johnicol Rayong, who stood on a Snap ticket.
Rayong has since become an Independent and pledged his support for the ruling BN.
The likely candidates
Batang Ai will be an acid test for both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat in the wake of March 2008 general election. It has been reported that the opposition is getting a groundswell of support from the majority Ibans in recent months.
Bawin, who has recently joined PKR, has been tapped as deputy chief to assist Anwar Ibrahim, the party boss who is Sarawak state chief.
PKR state assemblyperson Gabriel Adit, who won the Ngemah state seat in 2006 as an Independent, told Malaysiakini: “PKR is strong and there is growing grassroots support for the party.”
“We are looking for a winnable candidate,” he said, adding that Bawin is among the frontrunners.
Bawin is former president of the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) as well as former vice-chairperson of the Majlis Adat Istiadat, a state government agency.
Another name mentioned as a likely candidate is popular local Iban politician Jawah Gerang, the former Lubok Antu MP who first won the parliamentary seat on a PBDS ticket.
He later became partyless after PBDS was de-registered and subsequently switched to a rebel PRS faction led by state assistant minister Larry Sng, who is also the state assemblyperson for Pelagus.
Key issues in the by-election
Sources said the BN is likely to pick either former immigration officer Naga Alam or senior civil servant Nelson Mujah Giri, currently the district officer of Lubok Antu.
Mujah is a brother of senior federal minister Douglas Uggah, who is also PBB senior vice-president, and has close ties to the ruling party.
He may be asked to join PRS, which is a member of the BN coalition and the party with the rightful claim to the seat.
Political observers say the opposition has been active on the ground since the last state elections, and particularly after Unting fell into a coma nine months ago.
Among the key issues in Batang Ai is the increasing unhappiness among the Ibans over the lack of recognition of their native customary rights (NCR) to land.
Another is the Batang Ai Dam, which is located in the state constituency. Many of the relocated Ibans have claimed they were given a raw deal when their land was earmarked for the project.
Sarawak assembly speaker Mohd Asfia Awang Nasar is expected to notify the Election Commission of the vacancy in the Batang Ai seat soon.
According to Bernama, EC chief Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said today that a by-election in Batang Ai is “compulsory” because the term of the present assembly has not completed even three years.
Prediction by Sarawak Headhunter: If Nicholas Bawin is the PKR candidate, he will win by a 1,200 vote majority with between 75-80% voter turnout. PKR must ensure that they control logistics on the ground and on the rivers. Make sure that they have enough transport both by land and river to campaign and ferry voters - if possible deny the BN the use of all local transport, book them all NOW and ensure enough local stocks of fuel at strategic locations. Book all fuel pumping stations if necessary. If PKR has 1 or 2 helicopters it will help greatly to ensure a bigger win.
PKR please take note, the people of Sarawak (and that includes the rakyat of the Batang Ai constituency) DO NOT want to hear what Taib has done to them, they already know this. What they want to hear is what PKR can do for them.
So, get your act together guys and show the people what PKR can do for them. Sarawak Headhunter would also be very interested to know. DO IT (not duit) for the people and the nightmare of Taib's 28 year rampage will soon be a distant memory.
Following is a comment on Dayakbaru Weblog for all to ponder: