What you need to know about Malaysia's by-elections in Rompin and Permatang Pauh

The Permatang Pauh by-election on May 7 will be a four cornered fight among (from left) independent candidate Salleh Ishak, Parti Rakyat Malaysia’s (PRM) Azman Shah Othman, Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Suhaimi Sabudin and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PK
The Permatang Pauh by-election on May 7 will be a four cornered fight among (from left) independent candidate Salleh Ishak, Parti Rakyat Malaysia’s (PRM) Azman Shah Othman, Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Suhaimi Sabudin and Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of Anwar Ibrahim. -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Parti Islam seMalaysia's (PAS) Nazri Ahmad (left) will contest the Rompin by-election on May 5 with Barisan Nasional's (BN) Hasan Arifin (right). -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK 
Parti Islam seMalaysia's (PAS) Nazri Ahmad (left) will contest the Rompin by-election on May 5 with Barisan Nasional's (BN) Hasan Arifin (right). -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK 

Two back-to-back by-elections in Malaysia this week will test the unity of the country's fragile opposition coalition.

The polls are also seen as a test of Prime Minister Najib Razak's popularity amid criticisms of his leadership in recent weeks by former leader Mahathir Mohamad, who has asked him to step down.

The by-election in Rompin, Pahang, is being held on Tuesday (May 5) and the one in Permatang Pauh, Penang, will be held on Thursday (May 7).

Here's a quick look at why the polls are important:

Rompin by-election

The seat fell vacant after Umno MP Tan Sri Jamaluddin Jarjis died in a helicopter crash that also killed five others in Semenyith last month. The by-election will see a straight contest between Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Hasan Arifin and Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS) candidate Nazri Ahmad.

What is happening there?

In a telling sign of the tensions within the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition, PAS received lukewarm support from its opposition partners - Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) - when it filed its nomination papers last month.

DAP national leaders were absent, having given the reason that the party would have only a minimal presence in the constituency because only 2 per cent of its voters are Chinese. DAP cut ties with PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang last month over the latter's push to introduce the Islamic criminal code, or hudud, in Kelantan state - despite agreement within the alliance that it would not do so. Hudud is a set of laws and punishments set in the Quran that allows for flogging and amputation, among other forms of punishment.

The PKR delegation in Rompin on nomination day was also lightweight, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar the most notable face. PKR president Wan Azizah and her deputy, Azmin Ali, were absent.

PAS is targeting the BN on economic issues, particularly the newly-implemented Goods and Services Tax (GST), while BN, as usual, is playing the development card. Mr Najib, who is BN chairman, has announced that the government is offering the new generation of Felda settlers housing at RM90,000 (S$33,338), compared to RM120,000 before the by-election. Felda settlers are rural Malaysians given homes and land to farm cash crops.

What do political watchers say?

The BN is widely expected to win Tuesday's election in Rompin, its traditional stronghold, but anything short of a resounding victory would be seen as a reflection on Mr Najib's leadership, political analysts said.

"The results would be used to test whether Najib is a poison pill or a magic wand for his party," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in SIngapore. "If the win margin diminishes compared to previous years, then one could argue that Najib's leadership is dented."

Umno will be hard-pressed to match or improve on the winning majority of the late Jamaluddin. He took such good care of the constituency that he increased his majority of win in 2013 even as the BN votes in other Pahang seats were on the slide.

PAS, meantime, is banking on Nazri who is young, fresh-faced and a local. The 40-year-old Pahang PAS Youth leader, who hails from Felda Keratong, is taking part in an election for the first time. It is a gamble which the party hopes will pay off especially since 33,838, or over half of the 53,294 registered voters in the constituency, are aged between 21 and 49 years old.

PAS has labelled the BN candidate as a "recycled" candidate, as the 60-year-old was previously the state's Deputy Menteri Besar.

Permatang Pauh by-election

The Permatang Pauh seat was held by Anwar until he was jailed for sodomy earlier this year. The by-election will be a four-cornered fight among BN, PKR, Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) and one independent candidate. Anwar's wife - PKR president Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - will take on BN's Suhaimi Sabudin, PRM's Azman Shah Othman and independent candidate Salleh Ishak.

What's happening there?

The seat has become the focus of attention also because of the disagreements within the opposition camp.

Penang PAS Youth chief Yusni Mat Piah last month announced a boycott campaign against the PKR candidate after Penang PKR Youth criticised the PAS president over the hudud issue. Yusni demanded an apology from PKR for the criticisms. The boycott received backing from eight other PAS Youth division chiefs in Penang.

The Star Online reported that there had been frantic behind-the-scenes moves to get Yusni to back off while PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu had even threatened him with disciplinary action. The PAS youth chief eventually caved in to pressure from the PAS leadership to end his boycott, but stood by his demand for an apology from Penang PKR Youth.

This is the second time PAS has backpaddled on its stand against PKR over the hudud issue. Last month, the Permatang Pauh division had made a similar demand on Dr Wan Azizah over a statement made by the party against the hudud issue, but decided the night before nomination day that it would help PR campaign.

What political watchers say?

Permatang Pauh is a semi-urban seat where voters are exposed to what is going on in the rest of the country. Penang BN chief Teng Chang Yeow said the impact of issues like hudud law, GST implementation, the Allah and Bible controversy and the debt-ridden state fund 1MDB will be put to the test.

CEO of CENSE think tank Fui Soong told The Star: "It will be a test tube case where every issue will be played out, everything will be tested."

The by-election will also be a gauge of whether the Anwar family name still carries that magic effect. Despite the nationwide surge of support for PR in the general election in 2013, Anwar's majority of win in Permatang Pauh was down to 11,700 from around 15,600 in 2008. The Malay vote had swung against him and he secured only about 48 per cent of the Malay vote. However, he won 95 per cent of the Chinese vote and 70 per cent of the Indian voters. This is why Umno thinks that with the right candidate and a well-run campaign, they just might win the seat that has eluded them for more than 30 years.

SOURCES: THE STRAITS TIMES ARCHIVES, AFP, THE STAR, MALAYSIAKINI, RAKYAT POST