Sibu By-Election: Barometer for State Election

Malaysian Digest
KUALA LUMPUR, 5 MAY, 2010: As battle lines are drawn for the Sibu parliamentary by-election on May 16, it goes without saying that this will certainly be a closely-watched event.
Sarawak DAP chairman Richard Wong Ho Leng’s fight with newcomer and greenhorn Robert Lau Hui Yew of SUPP to wrest the seat will not just generate great interest among the public, but that of political pundits and operatives, as well.
Winning the Sibu seat means a lot for both sides of the political divide as they gear up for the state election which is expected to be called before July, next year. The result of the by-election also has a significant bearing at national-level.
A DAP victory will mean SUPP is going to suffer in the coming state election as what they had experienced in the 2006 state election. Likewise, a SUPP win would mean that the party is on track to regain lost ground.
“This is the reason why the Sibu by-election not only generates interest, but is viewed as very important as it would determine the degree of Chinese support for the Barisan Nasional, particularly SUPP,” said a veteran politician.
The politican said SUPP was likely to put to the test, its ‘rejuvenating and recovery plan’ in the coming by-election so that any weakness could be rectified in time for the coming state election to help it recapture the eight seats it lost in the last election.
Kuching-born political analyst Prof James Chin believed that the biggest weakness faced by SUPP was that it was perceived as a “dying party” while Sarawak DAP was viewed as a young party with many young leaders.
“The problem with DAP is that its leaders are always thrown out by the party. This is particulary so, when they become more successful. The more their success, the more they fight,” he noted.
However, SUPP leaders said since the party’s shocking losses in the 2006 state election, it had begun to groom more young and educated members as potential candidates, by exposing them to the local political environment, such as taking on the role of councillor or member of municipal council.
“One of the steps is identifiying the candidate early. That is why, you don’t see any problem of picking a candidate this time for the Sibu by-election as these potential candidates were groomed about two years ago.
“This gives us sufficient time to select the right candidate and introduce him to the people,” said Sibu SUPP chairman Datuk Seri Wong Soon Koh.
Therefore, Wong, said despite Robert Lau junior being tagged as a ‘greenhorn’, the party was confident that the 45-year-old lawyer and Sibu municipal councillor would be able to retain the seat for the Barisan Nasional (BN).
“Even the prime minister is impressed with his credentials. That gives us an early indication that we have groomed the right candidate for this by-election,” said Wong, who is also state environment and public health minister, and second state finance minister.
The Sibu by-election is interesting as it is held immediately after the recently-concluded Hulu Selangor by-election which the BN has reclaimed although it lost the Chinese votes heavily to the opposition pact, Pakatan Rakyat (PR).
“That is the reason why this by-election has generated so much interest among the politically-conscious people…because they are interested to know how the Chinese in Sibu would vote. Will they vote for SUPP or DAP?,” asked a political observer.
Based on previous voting trends, with the last one in the 2008 parliamentary election, only about 40% to 45% of the Chinese voted for Lau. Lau’s victory was mainly due to the fact that he received a high number of votes from Iban, Malay/Melanau and postal votes.
Had it not been for these votes, the result of the last election in this constituency might have gone to Wong Ho Leng of DAP who secured 15,903 as against 19,138 obtained by the late Robert Lau – a majority of 3,235 votes.
Some political analysts believe that the opposition pact in the state, which comprises PKR-DAP-PAS-SNAP, would try to influence the general voting pattern of the Chinese in the country by raising the same national issues, as in the Hulu Selangor by-election.
This is particulary on the issue that UMNO’s support for Perkasa — whose aim was to protect the Malay rights — did not go down well with the Chinese and others as they knew the multiracial voters there were not in favour.
“We expect them to play on issues which could harden some Chinese to go against Barisan Nasional as what the DAP had successfully raised in the Hulu Selangor by-election,” said a party source.
However, he said, it remained to be seen whether such sentiments might spread during the run-up to the Sibu by-election, and cause adverse implications to the SUPP candidate as voters in the peninsular and Sabah and Sarawak were different.
Not one to let the guard down, Sarawak BN chairman Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud — during the recent Hulu Selangor by-election period — deployed two top political aides to the ground to access the situation, particulary on the issues and how the campaign was being conducted.
“By wining Hulu Selangor, it has given us a moral boost in the Sibu by-election. It has a significant impact on us,” said one of the aides who refused to be identified.
The same aide said that should BN manage to retain the Sibu seat, it would give some indication on the possibility of an early state election.
“Should we win, there is a possibility we will have an early state election…maybe, by the third or fourth quarter of this year,” he said.
The Sibu parliamentary constituency has 54,695 voters, of which 66% are Chinese voters who are predominatly Chinese Foochow. The rest are Malay/Melanau voters forming about 17%, followed by Ibans (15%). The rest are Bidayuh, Orang Ulu and Indian voters.
There are 2,537 postal voters comprising mostly army personnel at two military camps, and police personnel.