KUCHING: The writings are on the wall that the 10th Sarawak state election is just around the corner, with predictions that it could be held as early as the last week of this month or in November.
Political pundits here also do not discount the possiblity that the state election may be held simultaneously with the Galas -- a Kelantan state assembly seat -- by-election after the Umno general assembly, to be held in Kuala Lumpur, from Oct 19 to 24.
The possibility of simultaneous elections arose after Election Commission chairman Abdul Aziz flew in to meet Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud late last week.
Sarawak has been in election mode the past one month and moved up a gear after Taib, who was previously speculated to vacate his position before the polls, confimed last week that he would lead the state Barisan Nasional (BN) into the election.
Taib made this announcement to an unusually large crowd of over 7,000 people comprising state Cabinet ministers, BN supporters and members of non-governmental organisations at the Kuching International Airport after a short overseas trip.
A day later, he told reporters that he was likely to defend the Balingian state seat, which political analysts say to be another strong indication that the Land of the Hornbills was inching closer to the ballots.
These two announcements have sparked a flurry of speculation, with many saying that the announcements were the clearest indication yet from Taib that the election was close.
Sarawak BN secretary-general Stephen Rundi has also declared that the state BN election machinery was in "full gear" and the first wave of election roadshows was already underway.
"We are prepared anytime Pehin Seri (Taib) wants to call for election," he was quoted as saying by dailies here.
Since returning from his overseas trip last week, Taib has been travelling throughout the state meeting the people at various events. This, party sources said, was part of the roadshow.
Tried and proven formula
On seat allocation, Rundi has also announced that the ruling coalition would stick to the tried and proven formula, with PBB (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu), the backbone of the state BN, contesting 35 seats, SUPP (Sarawak United People's Party) 19, PRS (Parti Rakyat Sarawak) nine and SDDP (Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party) eight.
Currently, the state BN commands 62 seats out of the 71-seat Sarawak state legislative assembly, while Pakatan Rakyat has eight seats, with another seat held by Ngemah constituency assemblyman Gabriel Adit.
In the opposition camp, DAP has a lion's share of six urban, Chinese-majority seats, while PKR and Sarawak National Party (SNAP) have one each.
"Election is coming. October or November is a very likely date," said Sarawak DAP chief Wong Ho Leng.
"The signs have become more prominent. Everywhere you go, people are talking about it and it does look very soon, possibly by November,” Baru Bian, the state PKR chief, predicted.
Political analyst here believe that the state BN leadership was planning for the election to be run simultaneously with the Galas by-election as this, they said, would drain Pakatan Rakyat.
"PAS will concentrate on Galas while PKR will have its hands filled with the party polls. This will leave only the DAP to fight the mighty BN election machinery," said a PBB source.
PKR's 218 divisions are scheduled to hold direct elections to pick national leaders on weekends starting from Oct 29 to Nov 21.
PKR vice-president Azmin Ali has announced that the party's first election would not be postponed even if the state legislative assembly is dissolved during the PKR election.
Another issue for the opposition is the thorny subject of seat allocation. Opposition leaders in the state reveal that the seat allocation among PKR, DAP, PAS and SNAP was yet to be finalised.
Minimising impact of Chinese backlash
"The thing now is to minimise the impact of Chinese voters not only in Sarawak but also in Galas. The BN knows that it is likely to lose Chinese votes in Sarawak, especially in urban Chinese majority seats,” said an opposition leader who declined to be named.
"But by holding the election after the Budget 2011 mid-this month, this rippling effect can be reduced. The Chinese are concerned with ringgit and sen... where is it going, how it would impact the economy and such. Although this would only have a minimal impact on the thinking of voters, it would be enough for the BN."
The ruling coalition lost the Galas state seat, a traditional BN stronghold, for the first time at the 2008 general election due to reduced support from the Chinese community, who make up 22% of the total 10,000-odd registered voters in the constituency.
Although Umno does not have any official presence in Sarawak, political watchers believe that the Galas by-election will be held after the Umno general assembly.
"We expect the Galas nomination to be fixed for Oct 29 and polling on Nov 4, or nomination on Nov 18 with polling on Nov 25," said a source.
However, some seasoned politicians said that it was not necessary for the BN to hold these two elections simultaneously and that the ruling coalition would opt to hold the by-election and state elections separately.
This school of thought believes that the state polls would only be called after March 26, 2011 -- exactly 30 years since Taib came to power.
Taib become the chief minister on March 26, 1981 replacing his uncle Rahman Yaakub.