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.
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.
Partyforumseasia Strategy-wise: Is the UMNO/BN dream (= seeing the PR opposition coalition committing suicide) coming true… or is it that their strategies are working? Knowing the systemic vulnerability of the UMNO/BN system by changing vote patterns and facing the extraordinary challenge by the Pakatan Rakyat opposition, held together by the charisma of Anwar Ibrahim, one might guess at least some of the defense strategies of the Barisan Nasional. The most important one in 2013 was winning the election at all cost – or, in financial terms, at a price tag of an estimated more than two billion RM. Gerrymandering as the most innocent looking tool worked as planned and the popular vote, won by the opposition, was more than neutralized. Having won the 2013 election, time would help to consolidate the shaken dominance again. And so it does, the second Malaysia Airlines (MH 17) tragedy in July even giving the Prime Minister and his government a chance to make good on perceived weaknesses after the first tragedy (MH 370). And both tragedies divert the public from domestic political issues.
However, the Selangor shadow play about the replacement of chief minister (menteri besar) Abdul Khalid Ibrahim (picture with Anwar) at the hands of his own party can only be observed with glee and schadenfreude by the ruling camp. Since Khalid Ibrahim wants to stay on, a leadership drama is unfolding and develops into an operation on the open heart of the Pakatan coalition, which is anyway difficult enough to hold together . If Anwar still manages to convince most of his PKR leaders so far, the cacophony of statements by coalition partners in DAP and PAS will definitely harm the public image of the Pakatan Rakyat and spread doubts about their ability to take over the government in future. Internal squabble in any party world wide damages its public image. Even authoritarian party leadership is more acceptable for the broader public. But with the airline disasters already rallying the nation, the Selangor squabble might be close to suicidal for the opposition.
Partyforumseasia: With nearly one million members Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is the biggest party in the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Alliance, but many of its members seem to feel that Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) are treating PAS as a junior partner. This has lead to the formation of factions within the party, often dubbed as Ulama (clerical) and Erdogan (“liberal”). The tensions were visible for some time already and even more so during the party convention over last weekend, 22-24 November. Party president Abdul Hadi Awang was reelected unchallenged and deputy president Mohamad Sabu‘s victory over his conservative rival from the ulama faction with 588 to 490 votes was considered a victory for the liberals, also called “Anwarinas” for supporting Anwar Ibrahim as leader of the PR coalition. Among the three vice-presidents only one from the ulama faction was elected. But some results came out only after recounting, a sign that the polling was controversial. The following calls for unity show that the strategic orientation of the party remains under debate. The “progressives” want to broaden the voter base and open it to non-Malays and non-Muslims because they are fishing in the same pond as arch rival UMNO. As seen among the religious (Christian) parties in old Europe, the rural and probably more religious constituencies lose much of their importance with the fast urbanization, even if the Malaysian first-past-the-post election system still gives them an advantage.