COMMENT The dominant theme of Permatang Pauh and Rompin has been one of negativity. On one level this is not a surprise, given that the circumstances surrounding both by-elections are grim.
In one, a man in his prime lost his life in a helicopter crash, and in another a man was put behind bars in an attempt to crush the opposition. Rather than act as a catalyst to bring positive change, the campaigns have been mired in the muck.
We have witnessed base gutter politics in Umno’s vulgar sexual innuendo campaigning. We have seen persistent attacks on politicians (including their wives) across the political divide in Malaysia's 'destruction' mode of politics.
The prominence of sabotage and division has overshadowed sensibility and dignity. Despite all of this, there are important markers at stake in these contests and in Malaysia's electoral landscape.
Najib needs strong victory
The outcome of these by-elections will affect the country's national leadership. In Permatang Pauh, a victory for PKR's Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail will likely move her into the opposition leadership position, at least in the short-term. This is despite the obstacles she faces from those within the ranks of Pakatan Rakyat, and even within her own party.
The weak machinery, the open defiance tinged with sexism and limited momentum in the campaign itself are all products of problems within the opposition coalition as a whole.
While attention has centered on the differences over hudud, older issues are at play, including continued resentment over the Kajang Move of last year, the resurgence of the push toward an all-Malay unity government and the real ambitions of alternative leaders to take over leadership within the opposition.
The results of Permatang Pauh will shape what form the opposition will take nationally, whether it will be a multi-ethnic national opposition with the potential to reconfigure itself as an alternative for national governance, with Wan Azizah and other moderate national-minded leaders at the helm, or other alternatives.
With Permatang Pauh's ethnic composition mirroring Peninsular Malaysian demographic trends, it will be telling to see what type of representation voters will choose.
Rompin has not received the same level of attention as Permatang Pauh, at least in the English language media, but it is equally important. At issue is Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak's political future.
This contest emerged after his friend and ally died, and the slated candidate and campaign is closely connected to Najib. His cousin Hishammuddin Hussein is leading Umno's campaign in the party's political base.
Najib needs a strong victory to assure that he has the support of his party and its core. This will be similarly challenging as the machinery is not as revved up as in the past, when an incumbent leader was running and a Pahang premier was seeking a national mandate.
Today's reality is that there is open opposition to Najib's leadership within Umno led by former leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad and nationally, as the premier has the lowest public support in his tenure. It is thus not surprising that the stakes are high in Rompin, for a reduction in support in Rompin will signal trouble to Najib's political future.
Unlike Permatang Pauh, where a reduction in the majority is expected, given Najib's position and resources, even a small decline in support will be perceived negatively.
From goodies to grumbles
By-elections have traditionally been 'buy-elections', with goodies galore. The BN, with its hand on the national till and control over the mainstream media, has always had the advantage, especially in the more semi-rural and rural areas.
Given the stakes in these contests, there are many items on offer, with even the Penang government making promises of new projects. It remains to be seen how impactful the use of financial incentives will be this time round.
One item that is marginally different than GE 2013, and reminiscent of conditions surrounding GE 2008, is a perceived decline in the economy. Ordinary Malaysians are feeling the economic pain, compared with the past, with a depreciated ringgit, the goods and services tax (GST), inflation and lower purchasing power.
Even in the Felda areas of Rompin, where the drop in the prices of rubber and palm oil has hit hard, there is a sense of relative economic deprivation. More than any issue - rights, religion or race - the main driver in voting in Malaysia is the economy, as surveys consistently show that the main issues that concern voters are the bread-and-butter realities.
As finance minister in charge of the economy and as a premier who has prided himself on the country's economic performance, negative views of the economy increase BN's and Najib's vulnerability.
As the campaigns come to a close, the promises of allocations have risen, with less open defence of the GST and more attention to where GST funds will go - be it towards civil servants, higher pensions and more.
Najib is trying to hold onto his political base and strengthen his position in his ongoing fight with Mahathir to stay in office. The question at play will be whether the electorate will buy into the promises in these campaigns. Will Najib maintain his credibility? Will the entrenched pattern of patronage hold out? Or has greater realism and cynicism taken root?
While the economy tests Najib, it offers a solution for the opposition. Economic realities arguably now serve as the bedrock for any base for opposition unity.
Even as the president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang (right), talks about the need for a unity government with Umno in his speech this week in Singapore, implicitly acknowledging how close he and his conservative ulama faction are to Umno, he cannot take away the fact that most Malaysians, and members of his own party PAS, are unhappy with Umno's current economic performance.
The PAS delegates at the coming June muktamar cannot ignore the common bonds the new economic realities foster. On some levels, the by-elections will be a marker of how the economy and governance drives politics as opposed to religion.
On others, it will test how much the opposition leaders are concerned with the welfare of citizens, rather than imposing their ideological agenda that is not in keeping with the priorities of most ordinary Malaysians.
The results - along with the decisions of PAS voters in both elections - will spill over into the PAS party elections in June and shape the opposition as a whole.
Hollow victories or hallowed outcomes?
The expectation for both contests is reduced majorities. The main reasons for this is the expected lower turnout, with voting coming after a long holiday weekend, the negative mode of the campaigns, active sabotage and weakened support for both sides.
The last few days of the electoral campaign will include efforts to ratchet up support, to oil the squeaky electoral machinery. Surprises cannot be ruled out. Whatever happens, however, these by-elections will matter and reverberate politically after the votes have been counted.
For Malaysians looking at these contests, Permatang Pauh and Rompin may appear hollow victories, killing hope for many amidst the negative sentiment. Yet, within these contests, there may be unforeseen dynamics in the electoral landscape that reveal ongoing changes taking place.
It is indeed hard to see these changes with the muck around these campaigns, but the shifts in coalitions and conditions have created new dynamics that will likely move Malaysia towards a different political future.
BRIDGET WELSH is a senior research associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University, where she conducts research on democracy and politics in South-East Asia.