Much at stake in 3 by-elections

(NST) LESS than 24 hours after the completion of its 59th general assembly and historic party elections, Umno as head of Barisan Nasional is once again being put to the vote in the by-elections of Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai.

Fresh from his crowning as Umno's seventh president, Datuk Seri Najib Razak will be Pakatan Rakyat's main target as the opposition alliance strives to steal the thunder of the ruling party's new leadership.

Cyberspace is abuzz with talk of fresh allegations by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who had been conspicuous by his absence yesterday in the nomination centres of the three constituencies, and another attempt, after failing embarrassingly last Sept 16, at a vote of no-confidence in Parliament.

Coming just over a year after the March 8 general election, the three by-elections are being watched as a review of the relative positions of BN and Pakatan.

Pakatan leaders say they are out to prove its support has not waned despite problems in the states it controls and the recent BN takeover of the Perak state administration.

They say retaining Bukit Gantang in Perak will mean the people oppose the "backdoor" BN takeover of the state while a repeat victory in Kedah's Bukit Selambau will reaffirm the Pas-led state government's strong footing.

Winning Batang Ai in Sarawak, they add, will be the start of Pakatan's inroads into the state, which is key to its plans to topple the BN at the federal level.

With the stakes so high, and the political climate at fever pitch since the beginning of the year, the contests in all three by-elections are nothing if not intense.

The opposition's ranks have been stoked up by the continuing impasse in Perak, the use of water cannon to break up a rally in Bukit Selambau and suspension of Harakah and Suara Keadilan, the party mouthpieces of Pas and PKR respectively.

Among the three, the message that will be sent out by the voters of Bukit Gantang is the most awaited.

A win for the BN implies acceptance of the takeover by defections of the state government, silencing Pakatan's claims to the contrary.

Pas' decision to field ousted menteri besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Nizar Jamaluddin is thought to have given Pakatan an edge over BN's Ismail Safian from Umno, who is a local boy but who has lived part of his working life as a civil servant in other parts of Perak and in Kuala Lumpur.

Independent candidate Kamarul Ramizu Idris is unlikely to make an impact on Bukit Gantang's 55,500 registered voters, of whom 63.5 per cent are Malays, 27.1 per cent Chinese and 9.1 per cent Indians.

Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who heads the BN machinery for all three by-elections, is also out to make a point.

"All by-elections are important, especially one that is done after the process of transition of leadership.

"We want to tell the people this is a team that means business," Muhyiddin told reporters in Bukit Gantang yesterday, as BN and Pakatan supporters faced off during the nomination process.

The exceptionally large number of candidates contesting in Bukit Selambau, 15 in all, is worrying the authorities and throwing the race open in ways the BN and Pakatan did not expect.

Scrambling for support from the constituency's 35,000 electorate, it is feared the candidates will pull out all the stops and resort to the racial card to woo the 17,000 Malays, 10,000 Indians and 7,000 Chinese voters.

Kedah police have already identified 17 hotspots in the part-rural, part-urban constituency.

Observers say as many as half of the non-Malay voters in Bukit Selambau are fence-sitters unlikely to vote for BN candidate S. Ganesan.

Those who voted for former assemblyman A. Arumugam last year may also not vote for S. Manikumar from Parti Keadilan Rakyat, choosing instead one of the independents.

A BN victory in Bukit Selambau will mean that the BN, which lost power in Kedah in the last general election, is turning the corner with the arrival of the Najib administration.

In Batang Ai, the odds appear to disfavour BN newcomer Malcom Mussem Lamoh, who will be up against PKR's Jawah Gerang, a five-term former Lubok Antu member of parliament.

But the remote constituency probably presents the least problems to the BN despite Anwar calling the by-election a test of Pakatan's support among the Dayaks.

The 8,600 voters, 95 per cent of whom are Ibans, are sparsely spread out in the 1,341 sq km constituency, posing considerable challenges to Pakatan.