Taken from Malaysiakini.com

When the results were counted (and recounted) for the PAS party elections, on the surface they suggested the status quo and general expected results.

All the incumbents in the central committee won, with some new faces resulting from those who contested from other positions and retirement, and all the senior positions went to seasoned leaders, who have held these positions before.

The results appear to reflect an extension of the kekal (remain) refrain used in the Sungai Limau by-election. Do not be fooled – there are substantive changes taking place within PAS, after a heated campaign, in which the direction points to both a growing national party and an intensification of challenges ahead within PAS and for Pakatan.

A forward-looking nation-focused meeting

As muktamar go, this meeting had a different feel. In the 59th muktamar, the intensity of the party elections campaign was omnipresent, but behind these divisions there was a mood of shared resolution, determination and maturity of a party focused on national government.

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An estimated 70 percent of the delegates had attended before. They were experienced, having been in the trenches for many years. Attention did not dwell on the losses of the party, but moved to the lessons and steps ahead. The focus was on the future, not the past.

In looking forward, PAS is accepting differences within its own ranks. This could be seen in the range of issues discussed and the variety of perspectives of the speakers. Ten years ago open discussion of differences was just not done. This has now become the norm.

To criticise the party was also a no-no. Now there is a willingness to talk openly about the party’s weaknesses and to propose different solutions to these concerns, be it the performance in Kedah or on the challenges of working within Pakatan. Some of the sharpest criticisms came from the leaders themselves, who acknowledged areas for improvement.

What is striking is that on many of the issues for debate, some of these, such as the role of the syura council or the ulama, there was open discourse.

azlanThe breadth of discussion has also expanded. Instead of the discussion being centred squarely on morality, more attention was given to economic issues, with the party taking a clear stance on the goods and services tax (GST) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). While the attention to policy details and alternatives were minimal, policy issues have become a larger part of the debate.

Also striking was the inclusiveness of those who spoke from the floor. A record number of women speakers took the podium. Disproportionally more of the speakers were also younger, with some of the performances of the younger delegates outshining their elders.

These dynamics of difference, open self-criticism, policy engagement and inclusiveness of voices point to a party that is changing and has changed. It has come out of the shadow of private closed-door decision-making on parochial issues to become a more mature national party.

Pro-Pakatan message

In its evolution, and in the muktamar itself, PAS leaders and delegates consistently sent a clear signal – PAS is committed to Pakatan. The discussion was not about whether to stay in Pakatan, but the substance of the working relationship.

The opposition as a whole is facing the challenge of how to address strengthening its cooperation, the mechanisms to resolve and formulate policy, to effectively articulate policy and to assure that the interests of the different parties are effectively represented.

The pattern of relying on limited leadership discussions and issue-by-issue oriented cooperation is being pressured to evolve to a more robust, inclusive engagement, with the issue of a shadow cabinet still in the shadows.

pas muktamar 231113 01For PAS itself, the challenge is to how best communicate and articulate its own interest within Pakatan, as many of the delegates feel that they are being overshadowed by the other opposition component parties, especially the DAP. This is causing frustration, especially for the more conservative delegates who have limited engagement within the coalition.

A vicious cycle has evolved where the more conservatives in PAS are excluded in the cross-Pakatan discussions and in turn this has reinforced more exclusionary positions.

For PAS delegates, a key question is how to be true to their religious struggle. More conservatives continue to advocate for a more formal legal framework to be implemented, viewing success as the implementation of laws in line with traditional teachings.

Progressives in the party take a different tack, believing that achievement comes from promoting understanding and engagement. It is not about the formal aspects of the religion, but the inculcation and practise of religious principles in everyday life.

The analogy of the discussion can be compared with the idiom of whether to put the horse before the cart, to pull or to push.

Conservatives want the cart first, to push, while more progressives in the party opt for the horse, to pull.  Both groups are committed to religion, but the means they hope to achieve this are different, with the implications also different for Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society.

Within Pakatan and within PAS itself, the secular-religious divide remains the most difficult ideological obstacle to navigate, and is unlikely to go away soon with discussions of hudud, among others, ongoing. Umno continues to pressure Pakatan and PAS in particular by politicising religion and using it as a tool to divide the opposition. This trend is likely to continue and intensify.

Bridging party polls results

One of the reasons the debate over the religion will continue has to do with the dynamics within PAS itself. There are many in PAS, especially the conservatives, who are afraid that Umno will usurp PAS on issues of religion.

With announcements on hudud by Annuar Musa in Kelantan and the new Friday-Saturday weekend in Johor, Umno feeds into the insecurities of the ‘pro-ulama’ group within PAS. This fuels the pro-ulama camp who remain a major force in PAS.

The PAS election results highlight prominence to the Erdogan, more progressive faction in the leadership line-up; they won 11/18 positions, and remain key players in the senior leadership. Looking at the voting patterns, however, the pro-ulama delegates captured an estimated 30 percent of the votes.

The Erdogans on their part secured 45 percent, with the remaining being fence-sitters. The dominant factor in voting was the “pro-ulama” versus “progressive/Erdogan” campaign.

However, the delegates did take into account the performance of individual leaders, rewarding those for strong performance, those connected with the grassroots and favouring those from their individual states.

The attacks did play a role, with this shaping the views of fence-sitters in particular. Equally important was the generation dynamic, which gave the advantage to younger candidates and brought the young Turks into the leadership.

pas muktamar 130610 idris ahmadAmidst the intensity of the campaign, the delegates sent three important signals. With the high support for people such as Idris Ahmad (left), Sallehuddin Ayub and Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, all known for being able to bridge groups and forge compromises, the message was sent to bring the party together, to reduce the open differences.

The support was highest for those who are seen to bring the party together. The bridging extended outside the party as well. While many appreciated the activism of Mat Sabu, his victory ultimately came down to an endorsement of the important bridging role he plays with non-governmental organisations and the other Pakatan parties.

Also important was the decision to put the more conservative Young Turk ulama into the leadership. While most of their support came from the ‘pro-ulama’ camp and younger delegates, the message sent was that they should sort out the differences through discussions within the leadership.

Finally, while some of those who campaigned did win positions, the delegates did largely reject the smear tactics used in the campaign, with many of those receiving the most vicious attacks winning positions with wide margins. There was a sense of fairness that played out in the voting.

For example, one factor contributing to the loss of Mahfuz Omar from the vice-presidency was the fact that he has a position in the party hierarchy in Kedah, unlike Husam Musa. The decisions were hard for the delegates, who felt there were good choices on offer.

Pressures of democratisation

After the muktamar the PAS leadership is being tasked to move away from division, address the shortcomings in its electoral performance, and to strengthen PAS within Pakatan. These will not be easy, especially given the intensity and nature of the party campaign.

NONEThere was considerable bruising inside the party and to Pakatan itself. Given the fact that many in the new leadership are incumbents, and there is a limited amount of new blood and ideas coming into the leadership, this will be a challenge. The test will be how the line-up performs and the lessons it has learnt from the party campaign.

The current line-up has a short 18 months to perform before it faces another party election, with expectations high that it will deliver substantively on areas to promote the party’s interests and to improve electoral performance.

As PAS moves forward there will be more pressures from democratisation – demands for more representation from the delegates, diversity of voices from the social media on issues and pressures for more inclusion, especially younger voices.

This will involve moving away from more traditional methods of political engagement and to embrace innovation – not an easy task for a predominantly conservative party led by incumbents.

What the 59th muktamar shows, however, is that PAS is not the same party it was and is often portrayed to be, and is in the process, of changing.