Partyforumseasia: Islamic or Islamist parties, maybe more than other religious parties, could be more coherent than their worldly counterparts because they share faith and rituals and certainties in life in a very direct way. Normally their spiritual leaders have clear-cut views and with their authority directly linked to God the dissent among members should be limited. Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS has indeed enjoyed a sort of close-knit stability under its late spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who served also as chief minister of the federal state of Kelantan for 23 years. PAS has been a thorn in the flesh of the ruling UMNO party for fishing in the same voter reservoir of Muslim Malays, especially in rural areas. Being seen as more caring for the poorer Malays and not corrupt like UMNO, the party pushed UMNO into a competition in terms of religious credentials which has entrenched the ethnic and religious divide in the country, bringing it ever more often to dangerous levels.
PAS-president Abdul Hadi Awang (68), a Muslim cleric and in office since 2002 is standing for re-election in the upcoming party convention in June. But for the first time in four decades, he will have a challenger, and ironically, the difference comes after Hadi Awang’s very firm stand on the implementation of Islamic criminal punishments (hudud) which threatens PAS’ partnership in the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. Though the supporters of hudud say that it will be applied only to Muslims, the non-Muslim coalition partners in the (mostly Chinese-Malaysian) Democratic Action Party (DAP) oppose it strongly. Reasons for concern are certainly justified: There are quite a number of mixed marriages who may be effected. And the hudud punishments, normally described as not easy to execute because of a demanding number of male witnesses, e.g. for extramarital sex, obviously find willing supporters, e.g. Muslim medical doctors who say they are prepared to perform the prescribed hand amputations on thieves.
But the hudud-debate has also increased the internal split PAS between hardliners who are prepared to a rift with DAP and those who support the opposition coalition and the common fight against UMNO. So, the challenger of president Hadi Awang is another cleric, Ahmad Awang (79), who is promptly being attacked as secretly supporting the DAP, whereas Hadi Awang declares it a duty of every Muslim to fight for hudud.
At the same time, the PAS strategy of enlarging its voter base to non-Muslims by establishing a special branch for them, the PAS Supporters’ Congress (DHPP), is creating additional irritations. If the publicly known figures are correct, the DHPP has 40.000 members out of about one million normal PAS-members. Though 4% look negligible, the DHPP members can make a difference in the constituencies where PAS cannot win a majority alone and where the opposition coalition depends on PAS to win the seat. Giving up this potential would destroy years of effort to strengthen the party’s credibility among non-Muslims.