A 15-man contest, a fight for Iban votes, same old Umno-PAS rivalry

(Financial Daily) KUALA LUMPUR: A record 15 candidates submitted their nomination forms to vie for the state seat of Bukit Selambau while Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) and its rival PAS were joined by an independent for the Bukit Gantang parliamentary seat.

In Sarawak, Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) Jawah Gerang, a former five-term MP for Lubok Antu and BN's Malcolm Mussem will face off in Batang Ai for the state seat. Johnny Chuat, a publisher of an Iban magazine who also has his own portal, almost joined the fray when he entered the nomination centre at about  9am.

But he failed to submit his papers as an independent and instead came out of the centre wearing a PKR shirt telling his supporters to support Jawah.

The polling for the Bukit Gantang parliamentary and Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai state seats will be held on April 7.

The main fight is expected at Bukit Gantang where BN, where a set of new Umno leaders are leading the charge to regain the seat which they lost in 2008. Bukit Gantang has always been a safe seat for Umno and BN until the last general election.

In 2008, Umno fielded Datuk Abdul Azim Mohd Zabid and lost in the wave of anti-BN sentiment. Azim, who was not seen as a local leader, lost to the late Roslan Shahrum of PAS by 1,566 votes. But this time around, BN is fielding Bukit Gantang Umno division information chief Ismail Saffian who deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has described as someone acceptable to the local leaders.

PAS on the other hand is fielding former Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin who is using the by-election as a platform to gauge the support of the people after his "forced removal" as menteri besar together with the ouster of Pakatan Rakyat as the ruling party of the state.

Bukit Gantang has 55,562 voters out of which 63.5% are Malays, 27.1% Chinese, 9.1% Indians and 0.2% others.

There were some tense moments when Ismail and Nizar submitted their nomination papers at the Taiping Town Council building yesterday morning. Independent Kamarul Ramizu Idris also submitted his papers to make it a three-way fight.

The massive crowd which comprised mainly PAS supporters reacted when newly elected Umno Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin reached out to some of them as a friendly gesture but nothing untoward happened.

There were also some tense moments in Lubok Antu when an estimated crowd of 10,000 people exchanged friendly taunting until the police started to seize the PAS flags.

According to PKR's Dominique Ng, the police refused to allow PAS flags to be displayed at the field among the DAP and PKR crowd as they were not involved in the elections.

However, the police later allowed the PAS contingent to join its partners, saying that it was all a miscommunication.

BN's Mussem was accompanied by Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, his entire cabinet and several thousand BN supporters, comprising members of various BN component parties from Sabah and Sarawak. Among those present was newly-elected Umno vice-president Datuk Shafie Apdal.

Jawah of PKR was joined by Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim and others from Sabah such as PKR vice-president Jeffrey Kitingan and PKR Sabah deputy chairman Christina Liew. There are 8,006 registered voters in Batang Ai out of which 95% are Ibans.

In Bukit Selambau, although the field is crowded, the main fight is between BN's S Ganesan and PKR's S Manikumar.

The large number of independents is probably because the seat was won by V Arumugam as an independent in last year's general elections. Arumugam then joined PKR and became an exco member before he quit his post that paved the way for the by-election.

The large number of independents is a cause for concern for both BN and PKR as they fear their votes could be diluted. In the last election, Arumugam beat BN's S Krishnan by a majority of 2,362 votes in a state seat with 35,140 registered voters.

Malays form about 50.2% of the voters while Indians and Chinese are 29.5% and 19.1% respectively.