PAS adjusting to life after March 2008
Ong Kian Ming
Many Pakatan Rakyat supporters and sympathisers were disappointed by the election results of the recent PAS muktamar.
Perhaps too much has been made of the victory of Nasharuddin Mat Isa in the deputy president contest. While his victory and the subsequent refusal by Nasharuddin as well as PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang to rule out having talks with Umno on issues of mutual interest raises tricky questions for leaders and supporters of PKR and DAP, one has to be cognisant of the political context in which PAS finds itself in.
PAS, like the other two Pakatan component parties, is still trying to adjust to life post-March 2008 and last week’s muktamar should be interpreted in this light. PAS’ ‘overtures’ to Umno is a reminder to the other Pakatan parties that its role within the opposition coalition should not be taken for granted. But fears of PAS actually leaving Pakatan and joining the Barisan Nasional are very much overblown.
The results in the March 2008 general election were historic for many reasons. While the overarching dominant storylines from that election were the fact that the BN lost its two-thirds as well as losing control of five states, an important political reality that PAS leaders had to get used to was playing the role of the third largest opposition party in the opposition coalition that was established in the aftermath of that general election.
While PAS is not unused to having fewer parliamentary seats than DAP, the fact that it was upstaged by younger ‘upstart’ PKR must not have been easy for many PAS leaders to swallow.
That PKR, a Malay-led party that was viewed as an insignificant party by PAS before the 2008 general election, occupied the position as the leader of the opposition by virtue of it winning the most number of parliamentary seats among the opposition parties must not have sat easily with many of the PAS leaders.
Hadi once No 1 Malay opposition leader
Many observers have been somewhat perplexed by the willingness of PAS leader Abdul Hadi, to engage in the so-called ‘unity’ talks with Umno. But one has to recall that Abdul Hadi is not necessarily used to playing second fiddle to either PKR or DAP.
In the 1999 general election, when PAS was the main beneficiary of the political crisis arising from the sacking, arrest and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim, it won 27 parliamentary seats and captured the state of Terengganu from Umno.
Not only did Abdul Hadi become the first Malay opposition leader in Malaysian history, he also became the MB of Terengganu. Even when PAS subsequently lost control of the state of Terengganu in the 2004 general election, PKR was almost obliterated by the same ‘Pak Lah Tsunami’.
Having to cede the role of being the most important Malay leader in the Malaysian parliament to Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and later Anwar is something that Abdul Hadi is probably still trying hard to get used to.
One also has to be reminded that it was in 1999 general election that Nasharuddin was first elected as an MP. He unexpectedly won the parliamentary seat of Yan (now called Jerai) with a razor-thin margin of 182 votes.
His political ascendancy to PAS secretary general and then later deputy president occurred at a time when PAS was seen as the second most powerful political party in Malaysia.
Some would say that this is still the case, despite PKR having the most number of seats in opposition and holding the position of the menteri besar of the richest state in the country.
Seen in the context of a recently ‘powerful’ PKR, Abdul Hadi and Nasharuddin’s own insecurities, perhaps shared by some of the party delegates, about PAS’ own position within Pakatan is not too surprising. One way in which this insecurity has manifested is the willingness of both leaders to express interest in having a dialogue with Umno on issues of mutual interest.
Moderates need time to stamp presence
PAS is also in the midst of adjusting to the political reality of having a sizeable number of their MPs being voted in partly on the back of a strong non-Malay backlash against the BN.
It would not be inaccurate to say that at least seven PAS MPs would not have been voted into office if not for the swing in the support of non-Malay voters including Yusof Rawa (Parit Buntar), Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad (Kuala Selangor), Khalid Samad (Shah Alam), Siti Mariah Mahmud (Kota Raja) and Dr Lo’Lo’ Mohamad Ghazali (Titiwangsa).
Add to this mix is the recently elected MP of Bukit Gantang and former PAS MB of Perak, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin.
Pakatan supporters were hoping that the PAS delegates would quickly adjust to this new political reality by voting in the ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ in the party leadership who are not only opposed to working with Umno but also more willing to listen to the concerns of the non-Malays.
On hindsight, this kind of optimism may have been premature. It takes time for these new PAS MPs to climb the political ladder within PAS. If they are seen as too hasty and willing to break with PAS conventional wisdom including on issues that have to do with Islam, they will feel the ire of the delegates.
Khalid’s unsuccessful bid to win a seat on the central committee is testament to this. It will also take time before the mindset of a significant number of PAS members and delegates can be changed to reflect some of the new political realities post-March 2008.
The fact that PAS allowed a non-Muslim (Vincent Lee, photo below) to speak at their muktamar and the formal establishment of a non-Muslim PAS supporters club is a positive sign that this gradual change is taking place.
Finally, PAS is still trying to find a path for it to advance its Islamic goals, which it temporarily set aside in the run-up to the 2008 general election but which it has not abandoned (and probably never will).
While there is broad agreement in Pakatan in the areas of reducing corruption and getting rid of repressive laws such as the ISA, tensions over issues that have to do with Islam have never been resolved within Pakatan.
The fact that Nasharuddin received the highest number of votes in the deputy president’s contest is perhaps due more to a sufficient number of delegates not wanting to vote in a non-ulama leader, perhaps out of fear that somehow the cause of Islam may be sidelined by a non-ulama leader, than wanting Nasharuddin to carry out concrete steps of working with Umno.
Hence, the actions of Abdul Hadi and Nasharuddin as well as the results for the PAS deputy president contest should be seen in the light of a party that is still adjusting to the post-March 2008 political landscape.
It is a reminder to the other Pakatan parties that PAS’ role within the coalition should not be taken for granted and that due accord must be given to protecting the interest of Islam within the opposition coalition, be it in the states which are controlled by Pakatan or in discussing policies at the federal level.
Why PAS will not cement ties with Umno
While some of the concerns expressed by Pakatan leaders and supporters with regard to the PAS election results are legitimate, it would be a tremendous mistake to conclude that the possibility of PAS leaving Pakatan to join forces with Umno has suddenly increased.
Firstly, both Abdul Hadi and Nasharuddin cannot help but realise that many opinions expressed from the floor in the muktamar were vehemently opposed to any sort of cooperation with Umno. That Nasharuddin only managed to obtain 45 percent of the delegates’ votes should be a clear enough indication that he does not have carte blanche to bulldoze his way to any sort of closer cooperation with Umno.
Even though Nasharuddin has publicly disagreed with PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who is dead set against working with Umno, on this issue, he cannot ignore the fact that PAS’ mursyidul am still commands a loyal following from among the PAS grassroots.
Both Abdul Hadi and Nasharuddin would be risking an internal revolt if they were to ignore the wishes of a majority of PAS delegates and members who would prefer not to work with Umno.
Secondly, political reality dictates that Umno’s loss is PAS gain and vice versa. Of the 64 parliamentary seats contested by PAS in the 2008 general election, 60 of them were against Umno candidates.
The two by-elections which PAS has contested in since March 2008 have both featured Umno candidates as will the upcoming contest in Manek Urai. The political contestation between PAS and Umno is fiercest in the four states which PAS has traditionally derived much of its political strength from – Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis.
It is hard to imagine how PAS can benefit politically from joining forces with Umno in these states especially given that the other Pakatan parties have virtually no presence and do not pose a threat to PAS in these states.
The Perak situation has also shown that it is possible for a PAS leader to take up the position of the MB in an ethnically heterogeneous state. This possibility would certainly not arise if PAS were to join BN or if it were to have an alliance with Umno.
Furthermore, Umno does not have a good track record of working in a formal alliance with another Malay party within the context of the BN. The only time when PAS was co-opted into the BN (1974 to 1977) resulted in a fierce internal battle within PAS and eventually ended with PAS losing control of Kelantan, an experience with Nik Aziz remembers far too well.
It would be naïve to assume that PAS leaders and members cannot make a similar political calculation and conclude that they would probably end up with less than what they bargained for in any sort of more formal cooperation ‘pact’ with Umno.
Umno not likely to make concessions
Thirdly, on issues which are of importance to PAS, namely issues to do with Islam as well as those related to better governance, Umno has not shown any indicating that it is willing to work with PAS to further those interests. Umno has not stated its intention of allowing PAS to implement hudud law in Kelantan or Kedah, for example, nor has the Islamic party asked for this concession to be made.
There is also no sign that the new Najib Abdul Razak administration is cracking down on corruption. Instead, his administration has shown a greater willingness to crack down on opposition activities. Given this political context, it is unlikely that PAS leaders and members will sit by quietly if Abdul Hadi and Nasharuddin decide to take more concrete steps to work with Umno on a more ‘formal’ basis.
While Abdul Hadi and Nasharuddin may be able to stave off the criticism of other PAS leaders and members on the basis that their hints at ‘working’ with Umno is to protect the interest of PAS within Pakatan, they would likely be risking an internal revolt if they took concrete steps to work with Umno on a more ‘formal’ basis.
Even if they think they can fulfill their own agendas by reaching out to Umno or by accepting Umno’s overtures to them, political realities within PAS and within the larger political landscape will prevent them from doing so.
PAS has sent a strong signal to the other Pakatan leaders and supporters that they cannot be ignored or sidelined. But it would be a mistake to think that PAS is in danger of leaving Pakatan and joining BN anytime soon.
ONG KIAN MING is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Duke University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.