– Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman
The Malaysian Insider
9 June 2015
The outcome of last week’s PAS annual meeting is likely to change the Malaysian political landscape. It is the first time in nearly three decades that the Islamist party’s leadership has been dominated by leaders from only one faction within the party.
The conservatives (ulama) in the party, made up of religious scholars and clerics, effectively routed its rival reformist faction by winning all the party’s top positions and 17 of the 18 positions in the central committee.
The women, youth and religious scholars’ wings are now dominated entirely by the conservatives, which hold different views from the reformists on the implementation of Islamic criminal law (hudud), and whether PAS should continue to work with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition.
Significantly, in the aftermath of the win by the ulama, the party has adopted a resolution to break all ties with its opposition partner DAP, throwing into question PAS’s political direction and that of the three-party PR pact.
Demise of the reformists
The staggering win and massive margins scored by the conservatives in last week’s party elections shocked many in PAS, including the conservatives themselves. Nik Abduh Nik Aziz, the newly-minted PAS Youth chief, was astonished that the conservative faction swept control of all positions including those in the party’s women’s wing. The party’s reformists sorely underestimated the influence and popular support enjoyed by party president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang.
Their decision to field Ahmad Awang – a relative lightweight – for the party’s presidency was seen by many within the party as an attempt by the reformists to hijack the leadership.
The conservatives’ strategy to employ an en-bloc voting system, where delegates were encouraged to vote for a team rather than individuals, was effective in securing nearly all positions.
Perhaps the most important reason for the rout of the conservatives lies in the criticism against Hadi by DAP’s secretary-general, Lim Guan Eng, who accused the former of being dishonest and dishonourable for cooperating with the ruling Umno to pursue PAS’s goal of implementing hudud in violation of the PR’s common policy framework.
Many PAS members believed that the reformists are in cahoots with DAP to steer the party away from its Islamic goals considering the strong support given to these reformist leaders by DAP leaders.
The results of the election showed that the reformists in the party did not enjoy popular support. Nonetheless, they remain an important group, making up more than a third of PAS’s elected lawmakers and state assemblymen.
The reformists’ next course of action will, therefore, have an impact on the party. They have two likely options. First, they can leave to join either PKR, DAP or the Persatuaan Ummah Sejahtera Malaysia (Pasma), the non-governmental organisation formed by PAS Kedah leader, Datuk Pharolrazi Zawawi. Second, the reformists could remain in PAS to act as a check on the conservative leadership of the party.
The fact that many of the reformists are elected lawmakers and state assemblymen allows them to continue influencing the party’s policies and position themselves as an alternative to the conservative leadership in the event that the current leaders of PAS fail. A number of the reformist leaders within PAS have, however, indicated that they might leave the party, a move likely to drive them into political oblivion.
Pasma is a little-known outfit that has neither the grassroots network nor the credibility that PAS possesses. The history of PAS has also shown that no breakaway party has been able to survive. Both the Parti Hizbul Muslimin Malaysia and Barisan Jamaah Islamiah Malaysia, two breakaway parties helmed by top leaders of PAS, have faded into obscurity.
Meanwhile, the conservatives seem to have a plan laid out for the party’s future. The future direction of PAS is best encapsulated by Kamaruzzaman Mohamed, press secretary to the PAS president. He noted that PAS will be going back to its roots focusing on the party’s tarbiyah (caderisation) process, the struggle for Islam and winning Muslim votes.
He acknowledged that this could cost the party seats in states such as Selangor and Penang, as many of the seats currently held by PAS have a sizeable non-Muslim populace and some of these voters might be taken in by fears that the implementation of Islamic laws would curtail their rights as citizens.
However, he argued that PAS members did not join the party to win seats, but rather to gain blessings and merits from God. He added that a true victory for the party is not to capture Putrajaya but to ensure that Islam is implemented in totality in the country. Conservative leaders within PAS have also dismissed any possibility of PAS forming a coalition with Umno although they have no qualms about working with the ruling party to ensure that Kelantan’s hudud bill is ratified by the Malaysian Parliament.
Recalibrating relations with Pakatan partners
One of the key consequences of the conservatives dominating the PAS leadership is its impact on the PR.
In his presidential address, Hadi made it clear that PAS was not quitting PR. He expounded that PAS will remain in PR, but on its own terms. For the PAS conservatives, the key problem lies with DAP. The passing of a motion for PAS to break ties with DAP has further strained relations between the two parties.
DAP leader Lim Kit Siang has gone so far as to say that PR is dead, and the coalition is awaiting its funeral rites. Immediately after the decision, Lim Guan Eng, Chief Minister of Penang, asked PAS leaders in Penang to resign from all their state positions. Calls have also been made for PAS leaders to resign from the Selangor government.
As it stands, it does not look like the relationship between PAS and DAP is repairable. The refusal of both parties to leave the PR coalition will lead to a political impasse. This will inevitably weaken both parties and PR.
While it is true that PAS needs the ethnic Chinese DAP to secure non-Muslim votes, DAP is also dependent on PAS to assuage fears amongst some Malays that DAP is a Chinese chauvinist party.
Likewise, DAP was highly dependent on PAS’s grassroots network during the 2013 general election, especially in states such as Kedah and Terengganu. DAP has more or less reached its optimum level of support, having won nearly every single non-Malay majority seat.
By straining its relations with PAS, DAP will find it difficult to expand its base and win seats in constituencies with a wider racial mix.
In sum, the strained relations between DAP and PAS do not bode well for PR. The ability of both parties to win the support that it enjoyed thus far is largely due to their good working relationship.
The biggest winner from the change in the PAS leadership will be the Umno-led Barisan Nasional government. The intra-PR could serve as an important saving grace for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak at a time when he is fighting for his political survival. – Todayonline, June 9, 2015.
* Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is coordinator of the Malaysia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.