While the political operatives are set to lock horns in the battle for support in the two “Bukit” by-elections — Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau in April — another battleground opens across the South China sea.

The battlefield is the Batang Ai state constituency in Sarawak, which is also the heartland of the Dayaks who make up almost 95 per cent of the total voters.

This constituency, bordering Indonesia’s Kalimantan region, has been on a political alert somewhat since early last year when the incumbent assemblyman Datuk Dublin Unting Ingkot suffered a stroke and later was in coma.

His death today now put the political machinery into gear and will pick up steam once the Election Commission sets the date for the by-election, the first in Sarawak since the state election in May 2006.

While the dust has hardly settled following a change of government in Perak from the opposition pact to the Barisan Nasional three weeks ago, the Batang Ai by-election will definitely generate immense interest of its own.

Going by convention, the voters Sarawak are very much into themselves and quite “insulated” from mainstream national politics, and the Batang Ai by-election this time around could also be seen as an early preview of the state election which is not due until 2011.

In the March 2008 general election, the Barisan Nasional (BN) won 30 of 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak. The sole seat the BN failed to capture, Bandar Kuching, went to the DAP.

This is despite the setback the BN suffered in the predominatly urban seats in the 2006 state polls when the DAP scored its biggest victory ever in the state, bagging six seats.

DAP’s partner, Parti Keadilan Rakyat won its first ever seat, taking the Padungan constituency and another seat, Ngemah, was won by Independent candidate Gabriel Adit.

Gabriel Adit has since joined PKR and made a party vice-president in a move aimed at boosting the party’s presence and influence ahead of the state election.

Analysts said the Dayak support for the BN has lately come under question due to sentiment on touchy issues related to the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land and several other land issues.

Former State PKR Chairman Dominic Ng said the opposition had “very promising” chances in the coming Batang Ai by-election following the PKR top leadership’s decision to assign Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to head the state PKR liaison committee.

“Anwar has managed to unite the various non-BN Dayak political groups in the state,” Ng claimed.

He pointed out that in the 2006 state election, Unting won with only a 806-vote majority.

Ng, who is also the state assemblyman for Padungan, said the decision by two former members of parliament Jawah Gerang (Lubuk Antu) and Jimmy Donald (Simanggang) to join PKR last year had also strengthened the PKR front in the area.

Batang Ai is one of the two state seats under Lubuk Antu parliamentary constituency. The other seat is Engkilili.

“This by-election is quite important for us. Everyone said that PKR, since last year’s general election, has been growing in strengh but yet to be proven in an election. This is a good chance to prove that,” said Ng.

But the BN is still confident that despite the political tsunami in Peninsular Malaysia last year where the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament besides failing to retain four state governments, Sarawak is a different story altogether,

“In Sarawak, politics of development still counts and the convictions are still very much strong for BN.

“That’s why, in last year’s general election, we only lost in one area,” said SUPP President and Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan Hong Nam.

Moreover, Chan said some of PKR leaders in the state lacked credibility and picking the NCR land as the issue would not have much impact as “there is some success in the joint development of NCR land.”

“Look at NCR land developed in Betong and Kanowit. These are sucessful projects,” he added.

“Anwar can win the cheers from the crowd in his ceramah (campaign talk). However, here in Sarawak, winning cheers doesn’t mean that you are winning their votes,” he said.

Chan said the BN had a track record of winning tough battles in the Dayak constituency.

This was evident when former deputy president of the now defunct Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) Datuk Daniel Tajem stood in Bukit Begunan in the last state election against BN candidate Mong Dagang.

“Many people were not confident that we could win but we did, and with a good majority despite Tajem himself being a strong candidate,” he said.

Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) information chief Datuk Joseph Salang Gandum, who is Energy, Water and Communications Deputy Minister said there was no doubt that the by-election would also be tough but he believed that the BN had fair chances of defending the seat.

Unting was the party’s vice-president and the seat was allocated to PRS to contest under the BN banner.

Salang said there was no problem about picking the candidate as the PRS had several qualified locals to choose from.