KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 25, 2009 (AFP) - Malaysia's ruling coalition and the opposition alliance clashed Tuesday in a by-election seen as a scorecard on their standing after a turbulent period in Malaysian politics.
The vote in Permatang Pasir in northern Penang state is a chance for Anwar Ibrahim's Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance to prove it is working together effectively despite tensions between its three members.
On the other hand, the ruling Barisan Nasional needs to show that, under the stewardship of Najib Razak, who was appointed premier in April, it has regained support after its worst results in national elections, in March last year.
Anwar said he was confident that the government's attempts to portray him as a "traitor" to Muslim Malays, who dominate the population, would not affect the vote for a seat in the Penang state parliament.
"I am quite optimistic about Pakatan Rakyat's chances," Anwar told AFP. "The Barisan Nasional's efforts to discredit our candidate and their whispering campaign has failed to convince voters."
The opposition has won six of the seven by-elections held since last year's national elections, in a major boost for the alliance of the Islamic party PAS, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, and Anwar's Keadilan party.
However, the last vote, in mid-July, saw the opposition suffer a sharply reduced majority, in a result the Barisan Nasional coalition hailed as a sign that its support is rebounding.
"This is a very important by-election, most importantly it will be a bellwether for the opposition," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert from the Singapore Management University.
"For the opposition, the worst case scenario is that their majority will be very low. That will create tensions in Pakatan, and questions over Anwar's leadership," she said.
Ripple effects could also include dissent within the PAS, which is a member of the opposition but which contains a faction that favours cooperation with UMNO, which leads the Barisan Nasional.
The seat is currently held by the PAS -- its only seat in Penang state, which is dominated by ethnic Chinese -- and was vacated by the death of an assemblyman who won with a healthy, 5,433-vote majority in 2008.
For the government, Welsh said the election in the multi-ethnic seat would be a test of Najib's leadership and his "One Malaysia" policy, which is aimed at winning back support from minority ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Malaysia's minority communities swung towards the opposition in the 2008 national elections, which handed Anwar's alliance an unprecedented one-third of seats in parliament and control of five of 13 states.
Results in the by-election vote are expected late Tuesday.