For weeks, the intensifying backbiting within Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance ahead of an impending state poll in Johor had supporters and analysts alike wondering if the event would mark the beginning of the end for the bloc. On social media and in media commentaries, lower-level lieutenants of the alliance’s three constituent parties sniped at each other over various issues, from seat allocations, the leadership of the bloc’s chief Anwar Ibrahim and the use of a common symbol for the March 12 vote. Adding to Pakatan Harapan’s headaches was the 11th-hour decision to contest the polls by the ascendant Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), a youth-centric party led by the charismatic ex-minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman. Some observers had suggested Muda’s rising popularity could pose a major threat to the three Pakatan Harapan parties – Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party and Parti Amanah Rakyat (Amanah). Then, on Monday – Valentine’s Day – the four party leaders presented a united front as they launched their joint machinery for the election. The poll was voluntarily triggered by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s Barisan Nasional alliance as a means of shoring up its clout following strong showings in similar bypolls last year. “I hope the vote canvassers of each component party will move forward and let bygones be bygones,” said Anwar, the Pakatan Harapan chairman. “We have to ensure that we uphold the people’s mandate and defeat Barisan Nasional,” the veteran opposition chief was quoted as saying by the Malaysiakini website. On social media, many citizens expressed a deep sense of exasperation over the fresh cycle of electioneering they must endure from now until the vote. The country has been roiled by a series of political crises since 2020, when a multiracial Pakatan Harapan federal government collapsed following an internal coup spearheaded by the country’s Malay-only parties. The country has changed prime ministers twice since then, and three of its 13 states have held bypolls amid the Covid-19 pandemic . Pakatan Harapan fared poorly in all three votes. While Ismail Sabri’s alliance has pledged to use the upcoming vote to gauge support for plans to advance Johor – which borders Singapore – as one of the country’s industrial hubs, Pakatan Harapan has suggested the election was more about “returning the people’s mandate” following its 2020 ousting. Coming unstuck? Independent political observers do not expect the Johor polls to signal a return to normality for the country’s politics. For Pakatan Harapan, however, the Johor result could be more consequential, analysts say. In particular, 74-year-old Anwar’s leadership of the bloc will come under the spotlight. “Johor may be Anwar’s last stand, where he may further erode his standing if infighting continues,” said Bridget Welsh, a prominent commentator on Malaysian politics . Political scholars in the country have long acknowledged Anwar’s key role as the “glue” holding together the country’s progressive political force that has been the traditional rival to the powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its allies in Barisan Nasional. There are trust issues after the betrayals, we will take some time to recover Noor Amin Ahmad, an MP and PKR member A former deputy prime minister, Anwar has served two jail terms over criminal charges widely viewed as trumped up, and is the founder of the Reformasi movement – the antecedent to the present-day Pakatan Harapan as well as the Pakatan Rakyat alliance before it. Presently, however, critics charge that he is reluctant to make way for younger blood in his own PKR, and that his obstinance is the key reason for the bloc’s internal divide. On the decision that PKR would run in Johor using its own emblem rather than the Pakatan Harapan’s symbol – a white arrowhead on a crimson background – Anwar suggested this was what his party’s grass roots wanted. Why Malaysia’s opposition must sacrifice Anwar to win the next election Cynics, however, countered that it was yet another instance of PKR’s hubris. “Johor showcases that Anwar is no longer a bridge in the opposition – quite the opposite, he is the divide,” Welsh said. “Anwar sees enemies within, losing track of [the] reform agenda and undermining the entire opposition,” she added, noting this stance was a result of the defections his PKR had endured during the ongoing nationwide political tussle. Pakatan Harapan’s loss of federal power in 2020 was in part due to defections from the PKR, including by Azmin Ali, a one-time protégé of Anwar. Anwar loyalists acknowledge that there are questions of unity within the wider Pakatan Harapan and in PKR, but counter that these woes are magnified by certain political camps with vested interests seeking to shaft the long-time opposition chief out of politics sooner rather than later. Noor Amin Ahmad, an MP and PKR member, said the party was still “healing” following the bouts of defections. “There are trust issues after the betrayals, we will take some time to recover,” Noor Amin said. Noor Amin defended Anwar, saying the various decisions under scrutiny at the moment had the backing of party lieutenants such as himself, and were not taken by the PKR chief alone. “There were disagreements, debates, but once a decision was made, we abided by that,” he said. This Johor election will be a good testing bed to see whether Keadilan’s decision was a correct one Hafidzi Razali Naval gazing Political analyst James Chin said continued navel gazing within Pakatan Harapan over its 2020 ousting was holding it back. In some PKR circles, for instance, the prevailing sentiment is that the party’s long-time alliance with the DAP – a Chinese-centric party that governs the state of Penang – was as much a liability as an asset. Those who hold this view feel that the 2018-2020 government would not have collapsed had more been done to assuage majority Malays’ concerns about the DAP’s influence in government and policymaking. This camp within the PKR is now keen to make it clear to Malay voters that the party will be the sole dominant force – and not the DAP – in any future government. The nearly man: will Anwar Ibrahim ever lead Malaysia? PKR hopes to be seen in the same light as Umno, which currently governs as the linchpin of Barisan Nasional. “People see Barisan Nasional as more stable with Umno as the undisputed king of the coalition even though they have two smaller parties representing the Chinese and Indian minority,” said Chin, a Monash University professor. Some within the DAP have their own concerns about the party’s continued participation in Pakatan Harapan. “Many in the DAP believe that if Anwar leads Pakatan Harapan in the next general elections, the coalition will lose,” Chin said. Hafidzi Razali, of the BowerGroupAsia political consultancy, suggested the Pakatan Harapan parties were missing the forest for the trees. The key question was not about which party reigned supreme within the bloc, but whether they ultimately won elections. The alliance’s internal squabbles are in contrast to the rising fortunes of Umno and Barisan Nasional. Its current winning streak in elections has come despite the ongoing corruption trials that heavyweights such as ex-prime minister Najib Razak are mired in. Najib is seen as a key instigator of the Johor polls, with some observers saying his camp within Umno will jockey for a general election if the results are encouraging. Hafidzi, the political consultant, said Anwar’s decision of whether to fight the Umno juggernaut alone or with Pakatan Harapan could be determined in the Johor vote. “This Johor election will be a good testing bed to see whether Keadilan’s decision was a correct one – and Anwar’s narrative would be shaped from his reading of this situation to prepare for the general elections,” he said. Campaigning for the election will begin on February 26, two weeks before the polls. Some 2.6 million voters are eligible to vote in the election, the first in which a new rule lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 will be in effect.