As party elections go, PAS’ are usually among the most civil. In Umno, the mode has been behind the scene attacks, reminiscent of traditional court politics.
In PKR, the style is direct attacks, as personality politics is brought into the open. In DAP it is the more of a cold war, with limited discussion of differences but they persist, nevertheless.
Over the last decade, PAS’ party politics have changed too. The elections are no longer an internal affair, as they are analysed, assessed and scrutinised.
And in this party electoral campaign, the entire nature of the campaigning and choices have transformed. In fact, rather than a contest, it has become war.
As we try to understand the results of the polls in the next few days, it is useful to assess how the nature of campaigning in PAS has shifted and why.
New three Ms – medium, messaging, mobilisation
The most obvious difference in this campaign is the use of the social media. When the campaign started – arguably even before GE13, after the party’s 2011 election where the Erdogans won key leadership positions – the medium of choice has been Facebook.
Here there are blatant endorsements and the modern form of poison-pen postings. Bloggers have fallen into the background as people use their social capital to reinforce their positions.
Another tool of choice has been WhatsApp, with its instantaneous messaging, and similar groups that allow the quick spread of information, many of which is unverified and emotive.
These tools are compounded by Instagram and Twitter, making the election process an “instant” affair. This new medium of sharing ideas has had an impact, adding intensity to the campaign process and moving the mode of discussion from more reflective person-to-person exchanges to a shallower dynamic.
While there have also been a record number of fora, including intensive debates over issues such as Pakatan Rakyat and hudud, the messaging has also taken on a new form.
Now more than ever, in many cases in violation of the party’s code of conduct, we see personal attacks. Unfortunately, many of the attacks are blatant lies, from the issue of Shiite to derogatory remarks on character.
The attacks have become almost Umno-like in their viciousness in the all-out smear campaigns. In this type of messaging, principles of integrity and decency have gone by the wayside to be replaced by tactics that do not reflect well on PAS. The enemy appears to have come from within as comrades-in-struggle are now focused on bringing down each other.
While the sense of fairness and honesty has provoked a counter-reaction, with those under attack receiving support and sympathy, the results will be a test of how these principles are actually practiced in the party.
Attack messaging has been accompanied by a different pattern of mobilisation. As a national party, PAS is expanding and with it factionalism is deepening. There has always been cliques, but now there are camps, organised with long “menus” of preferred candidates.
These ‘chai tan’ groupings, often accompanied with endorsements (sometimes illegitimate), fundamentally aim to take away the choice of specific individuals from the delegates and put in place a team.
This creates more uncertainty in the outcome as ally relationships, rather than assessments of individual performance, are at work. The increase in camp mobilisation is tied to the intensity of the campaign that effectively began with what was perceived as the victories by the Erdogans in 2011.
The conservative ulama were shocked by the results and have been working intensely to both reverse this and put in place a new generation of “pro-ulama” leaders.
In the history of the party, this is the first systematic organised campaign on the part of the “pro-ulama” who in the past supported just a handful of candidates. This time round it is a full slate in all the contests. They want to not only swing the pendulum in their direction, but to take full control over the party leadership.
The reasons have to do with the ideological differences outlined in my article yesterday, as they feel the need to impose their conservative, exclusionary vision before Umno does to protect how they envision PAS and ultimately their position in the party.
Major structural shifts
The campaign itself is also being transformed by pressures for change within the party. While the focus has been on the ideological divisions and personality differences, the synergy between developments in national politics and the party are at play.
Perhaps the most powerful of this is the generational change that is taking place, as a new crop of young turks is rising and contesting for positions. Many of these individuals were elected in GE13 such as Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz and Nasrudin Hassan.
This group however is less inclined toward Turkey aka Erdogans, as they entered politics post-reformasi, after 2001, when conservatism was on the rise in PAS and they were largely socialised in religious schools in the east coast or the Middle East.
A generational shift is also taking place in the Youth wing as fresh blood is competing for positions. While the pro-ulama faction is dominant, the ideological divisions are also present.
The pro-ulama youth leadership have yet to evoke confidence as national leaders. PAS, when compared to other opposition parties, has less prominent young national leaders, especially on political issues.
While Nasrudin (left) gave one of the stronger speeches on issues facing the youth at the Pemuda opening, highlighting economic issues and broad youth engagement, there still is considerable way for him to go to woo over young voters.
Beyond bringing in new voices, the presence of talented young leaders and new ideas will be essential for the party to connect with the young electorate, who will soon make up the majority of voters. The Youth delegates comprise nearly a third of the voters in PAS and will be decisive in shaping the final results in the party polls.
A second shift has been the creation of political families within PAS. The issue of political elites is now well-established in parties across the political spectrum, but what made PAS more distinct was the less pervasive family control. In fact, PAS has traditionally been a party that has allowed people to rise from non-elite backgrounds, a powerful democratising force. This seems to be waning, along with a strengthening of nepotism.
The family name, rather than the credentials of candidates, are giving party hopefuls an advantage, from the son of PAS spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat to both the son and son-in-law of party president Abdul Hadi Awang – Khalil Abdul Hadi and Zaharuddin Muhammad respectively. The latter candidates are controversial not only for their family connections, but because they are seen to parachute into positions.
While nepotism may be narrowing choices for PAS delegates, the candidate slate reveals considerable national breadth among those contesting. A few years ago, I wrote about the challenges of becoming a national party for PAS. What is happening now is the product of this geographic dispersion of representation.
While candidates from Sarawak, Malacca and Johor are underdogs, they are in the contest. This expansion represents the reality that PAS has become national in scope, with more pressures to represent different states.
In close contests, state dynamics will affect the results with swing states such as Sabah and Sarawak making a difference. PAS, like Umno, bases it delegate representation on parliamentary constituencies, although they are more weighted by the number of branches.
PAS has also brought in more women into the decision-making. While the number is still the lowest among the opposition parties, it has significantly increased in the last decade. PAS slated a record number of 25 women candidates with eight winning in GE13.
In fact, a woman, Siti Mariah Mahmud (right) of Kota Raja parliament seat, had the distinction of winning with the largest majority for PAS.
Women now have a larger share of the delegates, although this number reaches only an estimated 15 percent. There are more women running for the party’s powerful central committee as well, considerably more than Umno. Support from women in the electorate, especially Malay women, remains a weakness for the party electorally.
This said, there are changes taking place, albeit very slow. As with the geographic dispersion, this will shape the party contests. Democratisation inside the party only makes the contests more competitive and brings in more interests that need to be accommodated, even in a religious-based party.
The length and intensity of this party campaign will leave an imprint on the party, irrespective of the outcomes. Whoever wins, there will be scars from the party battle, with the new battlefield adding greater intensity and uncertainty. No question, there will be injuries too.
PAS’ polls have come into the limelight like never before, ironically in large part as a result of changes internally connected with its national expansion and the new dynamics of the campaign.
Many are putting their faith in the wisdom of the delegates, as they have put faith in PAS itself.
Others, however, are more wary, distrusting PAS and suspicious of its conservative Islamist forces that may hinder religious freedom and good governance.
The results will show whether this faith was misplaced, and whether PAS will move from fighting itself to a national battle in expanding democracy.