Partyforumseasia: Today, Monday 2d May 2017, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has wrapped up its 63d convention in Kedah, Northern Malaysia, close to the Thai border. With 800,000 members PAS is the country’s second=biggest political party after UMNO with 3.2 million, and also the second biggest Malay Muslim party after UMNO. Originally a split-off from UMNO, PAS has been the more religiously conservative movement, but the two parties’ competition for devout voters has pushed both of them increasingly towards a visible Islamization and Arabization. During a separate women’s wing assembly at the convention, some participants were wearing “niqabs” or face veils, while head scarves are mandatory for many years already.
Party leader Hadi Awang (69) is a Muslim cleric who has studied in Medina and Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and heads the party since 2002. During the convention, his religious and political message was absolutely clear. He told the 1,200 delegates that “aligning Islam in one’s self would save the country”, and debunked politics that are “liberal, pragmatic and secular”. That reminds somehow of the Middle Eastern slogan “Islam is the solution” which so far has not yielded much progress there. But Hadi’s domination of the convention and the party has a number of immediate and important repercussions for Malaysia’s domestic politics:
- PAS is pushing a reform of the Shariah courts, a religious justice system parallel to the general judiciary of Malaysia. Hudud law has been enacted in the federal states of Kelantan and Terengganu, but so far, since it is supposed to be against the constitution of the federation it has not been implemented fully. The Sharia courts are limited to imposing fines, jail terms and caning. Hadi’s private member bill asks for harsher penalties like up to ten years prison and 100 lashes with the rattan cane. These would affect only Muslims, but the bill (RU355) meets criticism and resistance from the minorities, especially the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). In the screenshot above from Star TV, Hadi is saying: “How can we agree with people who want to go against Islam?”
- In practical terms that means that the DAP as former partner in the now defunct opposition coalition is no longer acceptable for any form of cooperation and that PAS will open a “third bloc” for the widely anticipated general election which Prime Minister Najib might call any time this year, and as long as the opposition is as disunited as it is.
- Feeling strong, PAS will compete in 80 constituencies, like UMNO predominantly in the rural areas with devout Muslim voters and small precinct, whereas the opposition parties DAP and PKR have better chances in the urban environment. PAS expects to win up to 40 seats, up from 14 now.
- For the UMNO-led ruling National Front coalition (Barisan Nasional or BN), the PAS decision is extremely positive. BN can avoid direct competition with a united opposition, and three-cornered fights would badly reduce the chances of the opposition to topple the government.
- For Malaysians and observers, the flirtation between PAS and UMNO is difficult to analyze. For PAS it would make more sense if UMNO, as it has done with the BN component parties, would allocate them a certain number of seats in the many constituencies where the opposition has no chance to win. But PM Najib has wavered in his support for the Hudud bill and has the upper hand already with the “third bloc” solution anyway.
Rumors about a secret alliance between UMNO and PAS have made it to the courts already. Hadi Awang is suing the Sarawak Report website in a London court for defamation: “The suit is over a claim in the article that RM90 million was “reckoned” to have entered the accounts of top PAS leaders to woo them into supporting Umno and the Barisan Nasional.” (LINK). And the party has already collected donations for the legal costs during the convention.
- The separation from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the party of former ally Anwar Ibrahim who is still serving a prison term, has been high on the convention agenda and adopted unanimously. Unfortunately for PAS, it would mean its retreat from the state government of Selangor, the richest federal state, which PAS rules together with PKR and DAP. Pulling out would have opened the doors for the PAS-splinter Parti Amanah Negara which represents the more moderate wing against the Hadi-led “ulamas” or conservative Muslims.- Hesitatingly, the official decision has been postponed, and the Syura Council as highest decision-making body of PAS will announce it in due course.
- Conclusion: On the colorful background display of Malaysia’s Muslim movement, the PAS convention has created a couple of new developments in the running-up to the next general election. The highlighting of religious differences and corresponding political animosities is not auguring well for the unity of the country but signaling political risks for the future.