Opposition alliance faces test of unity in Selangor and Perak

Failure to resolve seat allocations in Sarawak was not only a key factor in Pakatan Harapan's (PH) poor showing at last week's state polls, but it also raised doubts over the unity of Malaysia's opposition alliance.

Now, two by-elections in Peninsular Malaysia present a chance for redemption for the three-party opposition alliance.

But analysts say there is also the risk of increasing public disillusionment with the opposition parties, which in the 2013 general election came the closest to ending the uninterrupted rule of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the country.

BN, through two Umno MPs, won the federal parliamentary seats of Sungai Besar in Selangor and Kuala Kangsar in Perak by narrow margins in 2013.

The by-elections in these two constituencies are being called following the deaths of their MPs in a helicopter crash last week while campaigning in Sarawak.

In Sarawak, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) both contested in six seats as they could not reach an agreement, causing them to lose all these constituencies to BN.

The third member of PH is Parti Amanah Nasional, which also fared badly in Sarawak, with several of its candidates losing their deposits.

"The way PH is organised right now is more of a public relations exercise. The idea of Pakatan Harapan was basically meaningless in Sarawak," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times. "If they don't coordinate properly for these coming by-elections, then it may be meaningless in the peninsula as well."

Apart from showing voters that it can stay united, the PH alliance faces an additional hurdle to win in the by-elections in Selangor and Perak.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a former ally of DAP and PKR, is saying that it will be contesting in both Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, where it has steadily narrowed the gap with Umno over the past few elections.

But Amanah, formed by former top PAS leaders, has also expressed interest in contesting.

A three-way contest between Umno, PAS and Amanah for both Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar will likely hand the seats to the incumbent.

The cracks in PH have already been showing, with constant squabbling over state government positions in Penang and Selangor.

The PKR-led Selangor government continues to maintain PAS in its ranks despite deep enmity between the Islamist party and the other two PH components.

"This is an important test for Pakatan, whether it can stay together or not," said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

"Either contest as a bloc or concede to PAS as a bloc and then campaign for PAS. This is where they have to show they have a big heart," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2016, with the headline 'Opposition alliance faces test of unity in Selangor and Perak'. Print Edition | Subscribe