Friday, June 3, 2011

PAS — opposition power house or federal ruling party?

Nik Aziz is held in high esteem by many non-Muslims. — File pix
KUALA LUMPUR, June 3 — There are two competing but telling narratives of PAS, the Islamist and second largest party in Malaysia post-2008.

In Kedah, there are grassroots members and Muslims who voted for them who complain that there are more karaoke joints and pubs that have sprouted up in the past three years where the Islamist party has been in power.

Also in Kedah and every other state in the peninsula, there are significant numbers of non-Muslim supporters who compare PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat to Mahatma Gandhi, the world symbol of all non-violent revolutions.

Both of these groups of people helped give the party its historic 23 parliamentary seats and its two state governments. The party also scored a bonus by getting the post of mentri besar in three of the five states Pakatan Rakyat won.

Yet these sentiments also pose a dilemma. If PAS decides to please its traditional supporters and go back to the PAS of old, with its focus on anti-vice laws, moral policing and its version of an “Islamic state” it alienates its new non-Muslim and moderate Muslim support base.

But if it holds off on realising hudud law (which calls for cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers), some its most hardcore supporters feel they’ve been betrayed.

And then there is the possibility of co-operating with arch-nemesis Umno. Though it has been fervently refuted by its leadership, the matter still crops up and haunts the imagination of many members.

So when the party meets from today for its 57th party muktamar (assembly), it will have to decide which narrative or combination between the two will decide the party’s direction moving into the 13th general election.

Its Pakatan Rakyat (PR) partners the DAP and PKR are keenly watching this muktamar. Not just because of the elections taking place but because the party’s leadership will have to chart PAS’s direction going into the 13th general election which they expect to be later this year.

What comes out of the muktamar will determine if PAS can live up to its billing as the “Umno of PR” who will gain the necessary Muslim support to propel PR into federal power.

Movement or ruling party?

PAS members, says one Kedah party activist, can be roughly divided into two types. And no, it’s not “Erdogan”/professionals versus ulama/conservatives.

One type believes that PAS is, first and foremost, an Islamic movement. Its main purpose is to spread the religion and pressure the government to adopt so-called “Islamic laws” such as hudud and qisas and to outlaw unIslamic practices such as gambling.

“The idea is that PAS should just preach Islam to the public, regardless as to whether people listen or not,” says Mohd Monier Mat Din, a member from Padang Serai.

Khalid Samad says PAS has not abandoned its core ideals.
At the middle management and senior leadership levels are members and officials who want to see PAS grow from a movement to an entity that can govern a plural society. This is where the tension between the two begins. For if PAS wants to attract non-Muslim support and the support of non-orthodox Muslims and actually govern both, it has to modify some of its causes. It includes re-conceptualising its “Islamic state” ideal which does not resonate with non-Muslims and PAS’s partner, the DAP.

Yet these same struggles are dear to its long-time members who believe in PAS as “a movement”.

There are many at the grassroots level who complain that PAS does not publicly talk about hudud or the Islamic state anymore.

“They are annoyed that talk of our original struggles are now taboo,” says Monier.

This yearning for a return to its fundamentals is expected to be voiced by delegates at the assembly, who represent the heart of PAS’s machinery in an election.

Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad explains that PAS has not abandoned its core ideals but the implementation of those ideals must suit the reality that Malaysian society is multi-religious. More importantly, many in the public do not understand the party’s aims.

“Our programmes for members and activists are to explain overall strategy. So they understand that PAS must get widespread support first so that it will be easier for us to implement our ideals.”

Which road to power

This internal debate is arguably PAS’s greatest challenge and how (or if) it resolves it will determine the party’s ability to truly evolve into a federal-level governing party.

It affects PAS’s direction going into the 13th general election and equally important, what happens after the polls. Does it stick to PR no matter how it performs or does it start talking to Umno about a “unity government” pact?

The spectre of an Umno-PAS government still pops up though the senior leadership has repeatedly denied that it would take place.

Ulu Klang state assemblyman Saari Sungib believes the issue continues to pop up because it is a “tactic by the enemies of Pakatan, not just PAS, to divide us”.

“The issue itself has been resolved in the past two assemblies,” says Saari, who strongly feels that PAS’s future is with PR.

Yet despite the bonhomie between some PAS leaders and their counterparts in PR, there are ordinary members and supporters who are still uncomfortable working with the DAP.

“We have to remember that the primary goal of the Chinese is to elect one of their own as a DPM (deputy prime minister). We have to be careful of that,” said one supporter from Kuala Selangor.

A Klang-based Muslimat activist however is confident that a majority in PAS want to stay with PR.

“We still remember incidents in the past when we co-operated with Umno and how badly we were treated,” she said, referring to PAS’s brief time with Barisan Nasional from 1974 to 1978.

Going after the new but neglecting the old

Arguably, PAS has undergone the most transformation compared to any other party in Malaysia. In roughly five years, it went from party that used to only appeal to a niche in the Malay-Muslim electorate to one that now has more than 20,000 non-Muslim members under a specific wing.

But some in PAS feel that this unexpected success has reduced its appeal to the Malay electorate, its original support base.

In a speech last February, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, who is running for the deputy presidency this year, warned that it would be embarrassing if PAS could only win in mixed seats.

With the party’s abysmal performance in getting the Malay vote in Tenang, Kerdau and Merlimau by-elections in mind, Tuan Ibrahim reminded PAS Youth activists to concentrate on increasing Malay-Muslim support.

This worry underpins PAS’s new drive into the Malay-Muslim heartland called “PAS ganti Umno” (PAS instead of Umno).

Yet, whether PAS is actually losing ground among Malays is still being debated among leaders, activists and analysts. A widely-quoted survey by political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat last February states that PR has been losing between seven and 10 per cent of Malay support since 2008.

Salahuddin Ayob feels the party is not losing ground in Malay areas.
Titi Serong state assemblyman Dr Khalil Idham Lim blames the lack of a robust communications strategy to publicise the party’s programmes that have benefited Malay-Muslims.

“At the same time, our programmes cannot be seasonal and not just initiated by the central committee.”

PAS MPs Salahuddin Ayob and Khalid are unconvinced that the party is losing ground in Malay areas as it is more a perception rather than fact which has been borne out of by-election defeats.

The defeats in Kerdau, Merlimau and Tenang by-elections were in BN strongholds, says Salahuddin, the MP for Kubang Kerian.

“By-elections are not representative of real support,” says Khalid.

“Each voter is showered with the gifts and propaganda by the BN machinery. You cannot do the same in a general election.”

A true party for all?

The internal challenges of PAS is emblematic of how the post 2008 political landscape has changed the way all parties operate and how they need to market themselves to more discerning voters and grow out of their fringe support bases.

Umno faces a savage a backlash from its racialist supporters as its president struggles to promote a more inclusive approach through 1 Malaysia. The DAP wants Malay-Muslim support, yet its campaign in the Sarawak elections was mostly Chinese-centric.

PAS is going through similar growth pains as it seeks to widen appeal yet maintain support from its party hardcore.

Hu Pang Chaw, who heads PAS’s non-Muslim supporters assembly, believes that the way forward is for the party to be a source of hope for Muslims in the same way that it has been for its new non-Muslims supporters.

“You can’t just bash Umno and expect Malays to support you. For Malays, all they have known is that Umno will take care of the Malays. So PAS has to tell the Malays, what is it that they can offer that’s better than Umno?”

Though the party elections, especially the deputy president’s contest, will hog most of the media attention this weekend, some feel that what is more important is the direction that is set by the president.

Especially important will be how the leadership negotiates between these competing sentiments from its rank and file, says Shah Alam’s Khalid.

As Hu of the non-Muslim assembly says, it will be about whether PAS can finally evolve into a party that serves and unites, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

By Sheridan Mahavera TMI

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