Winning the Sungai Limau state seat in Kedah is important for both PAS and Umno, as both have something to prove.
Kedah PAS, under its new leader Datuk Mahfuz Omar, badly needs to ensure the seat remain in its grip lest it confirms opinions that the Islamist party is losing the Malay ground.
It is widely perceived that PAS leaders do not have the ability nor skills to govern Kedah when it won the state in 2008.
Fed up with poor management and bickerings between party leaders, voters decided to revert to Barisan Nasional at the May 5 general election.
The new Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir is also under pressure to deliver, after his narrow loss in the Umno vice-presidential election last weekend.
"A win will show his detractors in Umno that support for the party is on the rise since he became the MB," said Ramli Mohd Yunus from Umno's Pokok Sena division.
Mukhriz, who is leading the BN charge, is not oblivious of the big challenge ahead. The by-election is, after all, not only about choosing the late Tan Sri Azizan Razak's replacement.
It is an acid test for him as many still wait for signs that the youngest son of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is a leader in his own right.
Doubts about Mukhriz remain, because it was former Kedah Umno/BN chief Datuk Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah who had led the coalition's charge in GE13 to wrest the state from PAS.
Winning Sungai Limau can prove Mukhriz's leadership credentials both at state and national levels.
The Election Commission has fixed November 4 as polling day, after 11 days of campaigning which begins today.
Political analyst Datuk Mohammad Agus Yusoff told The Malaysian Insider that both PAS and Umno would be engaged in a tough battle for the rural seat.
"But I would say is an open battle. Although the seat is a PAS stronghold, Umno has an advantage because it is in power and has a new leader.
"Victory for both sides will largely depend on campaign strategy and candidate," said Agus, a professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
PAS has named its Jerai Youth chief and Al-Azhar university graduate Mohd Azam Samat, 37, as its candidate. BN's choice is university lecturer Dr Ahmad Sohaimi Lazim.
Both are local boys, although Mohd Azam appears to be more known to voters. He is a teacher at a religious school in Bukit Besar, where PAS's support in Sungai Limau is strongest. Like the late Azizan, he also has a large number of relatives residing in the constituency.
It is obvious what Sungai Limau voters look for in the candidate, according to an Umno member from Batu 16.
Local PAS and Umno leaders are aware of the religious appeal of the constituency. It has several famed religious pondoks or traditional religious schools, and this speaks a lot about the voters' background and their expectations.
Although confident of their victory, Mahfuz and Anak Bukit assemblyman Datuk Amiruddin Hamzah foresee a tough fight ahead.
"As long as our traditional voters remain with us, victory is in our hands," said Amirruddin.
Sungai Limau, formerly known as Sala, is one of the two PAS strongholds in Kedah; the other is Tokai, now renamed Bukit Raya.
When PAS's strength in the Kedah state legislative assembly was reduced to two seats in the 1995 general election, it only managed to retain Sala and Bukit Raya. That year, Sala, now Sungai Limau, was won by Azizan. It was also the same year the then PAS president Datuk Fadzil Mohd Noor was re-elected in Bukit Raya.
This meant that both the two seats were won with votes from PAS's hardcore supporters and members.
Sungai Limau was first won by PAS in 1969 and has been the party's stronghold through the years.
Despite his ailing condition and inability to campaign, Azizan was re-elected for the fifth term last May.
Some of his relatives voted for his cousin, BN candidate Fadhilah Mohd Ali, and this could only dent Azizan's majority. Azizan's victory came from PAS hardcore supporters and some 1,800 Chinese voters.
He did not get the support of disgruntled Umno members in the four-cornered fight. Instead, they voted an Umno man standing as an Independent candidate.
Dissident voices who were unhappy with Azizan, if they continue to persist, could pose a threat to PAS.
But Amiruddin insisted this could not happen since "they are all back with the party".
"The seat must be retained at all cost. Not only because it is our traditional seat but also because it was held for many terms by a state PAS chief who was once mentri besar," Amiruddin explained.
Mahfuz also did not regard the by-election as a test of his leadership, saying it was more about evaluating PAS's strength and voters' confidence in their candidate to serve as a state assemblyman. - October 23, 2013.