Malaysia's hotly anticipated twin by-elections kicked off yesterday with seven candidates formally entering the challenge for the June 18 polls, which are seen as a test of public support for the splintered opposition and a referendum on Prime Minister Najib Razak's leadership.
The elections will be an important gauge of how the public views the opposition after Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) split from the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH), which now comprises Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Amanah, formed by rebel leaders who left PAS last year.
Datuk Seri Najib's ruling Umno party is expected to hold on to the seats of Kuala Kangsar in Perak, and Sungai Besar in Selangor.
The elections were called after the deaths of Sungai Besar MP Noriah Kasnon and Kuala Kangsar MP Wan Mohammad Khairil Anuar Wan Ahmad in a helicopter crash in Sarawak last month.
Both seats have traditionally been contested by Umno and PAS. This time, Amanah is also staking a claim to both seats.
Yesterday, PAS showed its appetite for the campaign by coming out in large numbers to support their candidates during the day's nomination process.
SNAPSHOTS OF TWO CONSTITUENCIES
SUNGAI BESAR, SELANGOR
This semi-rural constituency made up of fishing villages and paddy fields is a mixed-race area, with small coastal Malay towns beside the once sleepy Chinese town of Sekinchan - later made famous as a filming site for Hong Kong and local films. Sungai Besar has 42,655 registered voters and a voter breakdown of 66 per cent Malays, 31 per cent Chinese, 2 per cent Indians and a small number of other ethnic groups. In the 2013 election, the late Noriah Kasnon won by a mere 399 votes. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, however, Tan Sri Noriah had won by larger margins of 5,009 and 7,349 votes.
KUALA KANGSAR, PERAK
The royal town of Perak is noted for its Moorish buildings reminding visitors of its long history and is well known for the school that educated Malay royals and aristocrats. The area has 32,949 registered voters comprising 68 per cent Malays, 24 per cent Chinese, 7 per cent Indians and other ethnic groups. The late Mohammad Khair-il Anuar Wan Ahmad won the 2013 elections by a narrow margin of 1,082 votes. The seat was previously occupied by former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, who held it for 27 years until Datuk Wan Mohammad was selected to contest the seat in 2013.
Thousands of green-clad supporters began gathering at both constituencies before 8am, more than an hour before nominations were officially open.
Waving large flags bearing the party logo, they chanted praise of Prophet Muhammad and called for the fall of the government of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is dominated by Umno.
The turnout for Amanah was smaller, with several hundred people waving flags for the new party.
While PAS supporters appeared to dominate Kuala Kangsar yesterday morning, Umno's ranks in Sungai Besar led by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reflected the closer fight expected there.
In 2013, Umno won by a mere 1 per cent margin, compared with its 4 per cent margin achieved in Kuala Kangsar.
Amanah supporters held up placards that read "Probe 1MDB", signalling PH's intentions to focus the campaigns on allegations levelled against the prime minister.
Mr Najib, who is also finance minister, is battling allegations of graft involving US$700 million (S$967 million) and huge debt accumulated by state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) which soared to more than RM50 billion (S$17.3 billion) this year. The agency comes under Mr Najib's finance ministry.
Umno's early messages have sought to sidestep Mr Najib's troubles, calling on voters to seek continuity under BN's leadership.
"BN is for all. What's stated on the record for all to see shows fairness translated by BN. We hope voters are not emotional but see the reality of the excellent record of our elected representatives," Datuk Seri Zahid said yesterday, in his role as Umno's de facto election director.
In Kuala Kangsar, Umno candidate Mastura Mohd Yazid was absent as she is undergoing her iddah (mourning period) for her husband, who died in the helicopter crash. She was represented by her four sons.
Standing against her are PAS Perak women's chief Najihatussalehah Ahmad and physicist Ahmad Termizi Ramli, representing Amanah.
Also in the running is independent candidate Izzat Bukhari Ismail Bukhari, who said he was contesting as the two traditional rivals - Umno and PAS - were fielding women, who are not supposed to be leaders.
In Sungai Besar, the candidate for BN is Umno's Sungai Panjang assemblyman Budiman Mohd Zohdi. PAS is also fielding a state assemblyman, Dr Abdul Rani Osman. Amanah's candidate is division chief Azhar Abdul Shukur.
PH is hoping that the promise of influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad taking the stump to support its candidate will give the coalition some prominence as it had a small presence at the nominations and little by way of significant campaign activities so far.
The former Umno stalwart has been leading calls for Mr Najib to resign over the financial scandal linked to 1MDB.