KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 2 ― The Tanjung Piai by-election will test the credibility of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) continued claims of moderation and multiculturalism following its vicarious partnership with Islamist PAS, analysts predicted.

The formal cooperation between BN lynchpin Umno and PAS to create a Malay-Muslim political movement has fuelled concerns of increased racial and religious polarisation in the country.

One analyst noted that ethnocentric politics was among reasons for BN’s general election defeat and said the November 16 poll could force the coalition to choose between principles and expediency.

“For BN, what's at stake is the politics of multiracialism that so long guided it to victories in successive elections from 1974 to 2013,” Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid told Malay Mail.

On September 14, Umno and PAS formalised their political pact with a Muafakat Nasional charter to symbolise the end of their decades-old political enmity and push for a Malay-Islamist front.

Ahmad Fauzi said BN’s decision to go with MCA’s Datuk Seri Wee Jeck Seng was a positive sign for centrist politics, but said the coalition should have gone with a young and new candidate to put up a proper fight against the incumbent Pakatan Harapan.

Whether the 3,000-odd voters who backed for PAS in the 14th general election could bring themselves to vote a non-Muslim candidate will indicate whether this gathering of formerly bitter rivals was workable, he said.

“We must bear in mind of PAS's Islamist rhetoric of not favouring a non-Muslim to act as a guardian of Muslim affairs,” he said.

In January this year, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang reportedly said Muslims must vote for a Muslim candidate over a non-Muslim regardless of political affilations.

Unhelpfully for the Islamist party, the only Muslim candidate for the Tanjung Piai by-election so far is Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) Karmaine Sardini.

“Tg Piai will be a test case of whether multi-racial politics fits in with the 'new' BN as powered by the Umno-PAS newly found cooperation,” Ahmad Fauzi added.

For political analyst Azmi Hassan, the by-election would also be an assessment of the ties between the ideologically different PH allies.

Azmi highlighted the recent public confrontations between DAP and Bersatu and said these would demonstrate if their supporters were willing to forgive and forget.

“It's no secret that the seat won by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia in the 14th general election was a result of DAP’s influence in the constituencies ie via the 46 per cent Chinese voters,” he said.

While Azmi did not cite any particular row, Bersatu Youth chief Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman openly threatened to attack DAP unless the ally party took action against a lawmaker for criticising Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“So it will be interesting to see if DAP will throw its full weight during the campaign to support the Bersatu candidate.

“On the other hand Umno and PAS also need to prove that their cooperation can be translated into votes in the by-election and this is the first real test both parties are facing since the charter was formalised several weeks ago,” he added.

Azmi suggested that BN’s decision to field a non-Malay was to counter perceptions that that PAS-Umno union would dominate the alliance and demonstrate that this could still result in a positive multiracial arrangement.

He further suggested that the decision to go with Wee was made despite being a risk, as it would have been easier to pitch an Umno leader to local supporters.

“No doubt an Umno candidate is a safer choice as it will gain support from the grassroots,” Azmi said.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia associate professor Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid said Tanjung Piai would be difficult for PH due to recent events.

“Several DAP members are currently under investigation for alleged links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorist group, thus the party’s image is no longer attractive to most Malay voters.

“And the Malays really cherish the alliance between Umno and PAS,” she said of the dominant Malay ethnic group comprising around 57 per cent with the winning candidate needing another small percentage to clinch the seat.

On whether the by-election result could be an indicator of how PH will fare in seats in won marginally, both Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani and Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Sivamurugan Pandian disagreed.

They noted that the dynamics of by-elections were significantly different from national polls or those that could result in a change of power; as Tanjung Piai would not alter the balance of power, they said voters could vote according to short-term sentiments.

PH previously lost three by-elections in a row this year ― two state seats and one parliamentary seat ― before managing to secure a victory in the latest one that was held in Sandakan in May 2019.

Aside from the PH and BN candidates, independent Opposition party Gerakan is also fielding its 38-year old deputy secretary-general Wendy Subramaniam.

The November 16 by-election was triggered after incumbent, the late Datuk Dr Md Farid Md Rafik, died of heart complications on September 21.

Dr Md Farid won the seat in the previous general election after he defeated Wee and PAS’s Nordin Othman in a three-way contest.

The Tanjung Piai constituency is a mixed seat comprising 57 per cent Malays, 42 per cent Chinese and 1 per cent Indians that made up 53,528 registered voters.

The seat has been traditionally contested by MCA and DAP since 2004. In 2018, DAP ceded the seat to Bersatu to contest under its PH campaign.