Towels with “PAS for all” slogans
MUCH has been made about PAS’s 55th muktamar (annual general assembly) and the elections tomorrow, 5 June 2009, as a battle between the conservatives, represented by the ulama, and the moderates or professionals.
But labels aside, the issue at hand is about PAS’s future. And the muktamar which begins tomorrow will tell party members and observers how PAS, from being a rural-based party on the fringes, will seal its hold on mainstream politics.
Indian Malaysians campaigning for PAS
The ulama camp has been labelled as pro-muzakarah (dialogue), being in favour of unity talks with Umno to restore Muslim-Malay strength and unity. The professionals have been labelled the “Erdogans” or pro-reform and are comfortable with the idea of working with Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP to promote a politics of multiracial inclusiveness.
The issue then is about power and whether it lies in the Malay-Muslim base with Umno, or in the multiracialism of Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s new politics.
Will the muktamar pave the way for bridges to be built with Umno? Or will it further entrench the party’s current centrist position within the PR?
Unity with “the enemy”
Lately, there have been efforts to reassert the concept of “kepimpinan ulama” in an apparent attempt to pre-empt victory by non-clerics contesting the top posts of deputy president and vice-president. (All top posts, with the exception of president, are being contested.)
Clerics have consistently held the top two posts although challenges by non-ulama are not new. In 2003, Datuk Mustafa Ali, a non-cleric, ran for deputy president but did not win. This time, the threat is in the form of incumbent vice-president Datuk Husam Musa, who is in the fray for the party’s number two spot.
Given that the idea of a unity government between PAS and Umno was president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang‘s, the stakes for the ulama group if they can consolidate power would be the opportunity to pursue this further.
But news of the talks caused a backlash of protest from PAS members, especially from spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat who likened it to “sleeping with the enemy”. Recently, Hadi himself withdrew the idea after Datuk Seri Najib Razak became prime minister.
But the matter is by no means dead and has become an election issue, especially in the deputy president’s race.
Husam, in announcing his intention to contest, made it his manifesto to end any cooperation with Umno if he was elected. He even added that the time had come for PAS to replace Umno. “To be liberal towards Umno is unacceptable, PAS should remain centrist,” he said.
And in a direct challenge to incumbent Nasharuddin Mat Isa, a cleric, who was a party in the unity talks, Husam added: “I believe he is better than me, that is why for two terms I supported him, but recent developments turned this contest beyond personalities and relationship.”
Chinese Malaysians campaigning for PAS
A third contender, vice-president Mohamad Sabu, will make the number two race a three-cornered fight but the main battle is expected to be between Husam and Nasharuddin.
PAS needs Pakatan Rakyat
Political analyst Assoc Prof Dr Mohamad Agus Yusoff believes the majority of PAS members are against the idea of a unity government with Umno, although they still accept Hadi, its proponent, as president.
“The members don’t want to rock the boat as there is confidence PAS could win more seats in the next general election. With that in mind, they feel it’s best not to disturb things at the top-most level,” says Agus in a phone interview.
Despite their endorsement of Hadi, Agus believes most of the grassroots are pro-Erdogan. “They have seen that being in Pakatan Rakyat is the best option for them if PAS wants to rule at the federal level,” he observes.
Nizar fries some char kuay teow
Although PAS won the least parliamentary seats (23) compared to DAP (28) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (31) in the 2008 general election, it won the most number of state seats (83). PAS now has 24 parliamentary seats after winning the Kuala Terengganu by-election in January 2009.
The recent Bukit Gantang by-election has proven that many non-Malay Malaysians have shed their fears of the Islamist party.
The MCA-backed Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap) observes that PAS has succeeded in using moderate leaders to directly reach non-Malay Malaysians so much so that DAP’s help as intermediary is no longer needed.
“That is why you see [Datuk Seri Mohammad] Nizar Jamaluddin so comfortable frying char kuay teow with Chinese [Malaysians] in Bukit Gantang, and why Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad goes to church services. It’s a matter of grooming more leaders like these,” Insap director Fui K Soong tells The Nut Graph.
PAS has tasted acceptance by the masses that cuts across racial and religious barriers. The prospect of winning more seats in general elections is bright if the party can maintain its centrist appeal.
Hu Pang Chaw
Central committee member, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud, downplays the leadership struggle between ulama and reformists as capital for party “outsiders” to use.
“The professionals have good Islamic grounding and a solid, macro view of things. The ulama have in-depth, micro knowledge of Islam. The two sides are mutually enhancing.”
Ultimately, she believes a mix of clerics and reformists are necessary for the party’s health. It’s a view echoed by the PAS Supporters’ Club (PSC) co-founder Hu Pang Chaw.
“I am okay with the party president being an ulama. But there should also be professionals to bring balance and new ideas. Ulama are also needed to provide moral leadership and prevent things like corruption,” Hu says.
Tok Guru Hadi Awang
Central committee member and PAS treasurer Dr Hatta Ramli adds that the professional group shouldn’t get all the credit for developing PAS’s multiracial appeal.
“The ‘PAS for all’ slogan was decided upon unanimously by the party. In fact, the strongest proponent was the party’s national unity committee head Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, an ulama. Tok Guru Hadi Awang also reaches out to non-Muslims. So I won’t agree with the perception that only the professionals are making PAS more appealing to non-Muslims,” Hatta says.
No absolute power
“Even if Nasharuddin is returned as deputy president, I believe it will be fine. There will never be absolute power within PAS as there is the Dewan Harian, Dewan Ulama, the Majlis Syura Ulamak and the central leadership to provide a balance of views all round. In the end, PAS is a party that listens to its grassroots,” Agus argues.
He notes that PAS is structured in such a way that there is check and balance, more than there is in Umno, at least.
Nik Aziz in Bukit Gantang
Internal check-and-balance, however, will depend on whether the ulama or professionals emerge stronger in the elections.
Insap’s Soong feels the only difference between conservatives and reformists in PAS is a matter of strategy. “Neither camp has backed off from their Islamic state agenda,” she cautions.
As such, calling the party election a battle between the “pro-muzakarah” and pro-Erdogan” factions is on one level, just politics. On a deeper level, it is a question of identity about what PAS, as an Islamist-Malay Malaysian party, should be in a plural society post-March 2008.