Taken from Malaysiakini.com

The introduction of the hudud amendments today in Kelantan have yet another origin beyond democratic dynamics within the party. They are based on a calculated effort to win votes, namely to strengthen the support of PAS’s core supporters and to strengthen the position of PAS vis-à-vis the coalition partners inside Pakatan.

Ironically, the hudud measures do neither, and potentially undermine the party’s standing as a national party and within its own electoral base. In this second piece, I lay out how misguided the revitalized hudud initiative is for a political party whose stated aim is to hold national power.

Over-reacting to Umno pressure

In the defensive mode of the PAS party leadership, the party have been responding to others rather than setting its own course. The most effective actor influencing PAS has been Umno. Opting for offensive attacks, Umno has successfully convinced PAS that is it losing ground among Muslims.

Despite winning more of the popular vote nationally in GE2013 and winning more seats and gains in their vote share in Malay heartland seats (except Kedah and Perak where party infighting affected results), many in PAS have the perception that they lost ground.

They have also been made to believe that the have lost their core support base among devout Muslims and rural Malays, as they have taken to heart the Umno propaganda and concentrated on developments in Kelantan and Kedah, where the losses were most evident. The numbers for PAS’s performance are much more positive than the public framing of their performance.

Collectively PAS lost 3 percent of Malay support, considerably less than in most of the elections historically except 1969, 1999 and 2008. In most of the states their gains were among Malays in termsof numbers. Significant gains in support were also gleaned from non-Muslims, ranging over 7 percent. Of the 21 seats PAS won, 14 of these would not have been possible without non-Muslim support.

But in politics, it is not reality that matters, but perception. Malaysian politics still centres around Malay politics, and for PAS there has been a growing sense that it is not winning Malays. In fact, there is a deep-seated fear that they are losing their core supporters. In fact, in some ways, they are right. PAS did lose among some devout Muslims, it lost in some rural areas, and it lost among women.

Part of the explanation lies with the appeal of other Pakatan parties for Malay votes, as PKR and even DAP has won over support. The main reason is Umno’s successful efforts to infiltrate PAS’s core through support for religious education, funding to religious organizations and more effective engagement with young voters on the issues that matter to them, notably with a concentration on bread and butter issues.

For some analysts there has been a focus on Umno’s confrontational race and religious campaign as the decisive factor undermining PAS, with PAS portrayed as betraying Islam. My own view places greater emphasis on Umno’s calculated efforts to cut off PAS from its social networks, the critical use of resources and the ineffectiveness of PAS’s electoral campaign on a national scale.

These issues remain open for debate, but what is relevant for the revitalisation of hudud is that PAS believes it needs to appeal to its core – devout Muslims and rural Malays.

Standing tall, winning respect

In going back to hudud, PAS is also responding to another set of insecurities, the Democratic Action Party in particular and its discomfort in Pakatan more generally. The issues here are complex – racism, religious differences, style, strategy and personalities.

All the parties in Malaysia are grappling with an electorate that is less race oriented, but a political context that continues to be racially analyzed and framed. Racism is still deeply embedded, and had been stoked intensely in the past two years as Umno fans discord for political ends.

Pakatan parties are also not immune from the issues of race as well, with considerable misunderstandings and cultural differences. The challenges of bridge-building on religion are even more challenging, particularly for PAS.

The GE13 campaign and its aftermath has left an imprint on PAS, who has been portrayed as weak vis-a-vis its Pakatan partners. It is seen as the weakest link. PAS was blamed by some for ‘not performing’ in the last election and it has been consistently portrayed as ‘the problem’.

This has fed insecurities. The image of PAS in the Malay language press has fanned these sentiments by building up the portrayal of the ‘weakling’. As the hudud issue has evolved the non-Muslim mediums have moved to portray PAS as the ‘villain’, with ‘aggressive’ DAP seen to be leading the accusations.

This has not sat well in PAS, even among the more progressive elements. PAS wants respect, it wants to be treated fairly and many feel that the response of its Pakatan partners have crossed lines. Hudud is in part about fighting back, for the party to be seen out of the shadow of others. Thus hudud has become yet another political tool to show Umno, DAP and PKR that it is its own party.

Hudud is push, not pull

Sadly, this is a counterproductive strategy. By going forward with the hudud amendments, PAS has neither secured its Malay core nor secured its electoral gains. To explain my argument, I draw on surveys on hudud and focus groups.

Let me unpack my analysis. First of all, hudud is not as important a pull factor for Malays and even devout Muslims as PAS believes. Second, hudud is more alienating for some Malays and non-Muslims than PAS believes. Third, hudud serves to showcase PAS’ shortcomings as a party in national government, with a narrow focus that excludes and portrays negativity.

There have been two surveys conducted on the hudud issue, the Merderka Centre’s Survey of April 2014 reported in the press and the Asia Barometer Survey last September-October, coming out in a book later this year and outlined here. The findings are reasonably consistent.

I draw from the ABS findings, as I have run a series of tests to examine how hudud compares to other electoral issues such as the economy and corruption and importantly this survey includes East Malaysia.

Some observations:

  • The majority of Malaysians do not agree that the country is ready for hudud.
  • While a majority of Malays do agree the country is ready for hudud, there is a large share of Malays – 30.6 percent, who do not and many who have a lukewarm support for hudud, 28.8 percent. This is by way of saying only a third of Malays strongly support hudud.
  • Overwhelmingly, non-Muslims do not support hudud, with a larger share of non-Muslims strongly disagreeing with hudud than Malays who strongly support hudud.
  • A small share of non-Muslims believe the country is ready for hudud.
  • Females, including Malay females, disproportionately do not believe the country is ready for hudud.
  • There is considerable regional variation in the support for hudud, with support in the Eastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu considerably higher than the northern (Kedah, Perlis and Penang) and southern regions. Strong support in the Eastern states for hudud does not translate into a majority.
  • East Malaysians have the least support for hudud.

Returning to the argument about why hudud amendments hurt PAS electorally, let me draw from the survey and my other analyses. To the point of attracting voters, numerically, the core strong support for hudud remains a minority nationally and even in the Eastern states of Kelantan.

Importantly, however, when these voters were asked – as they were in The Malaysian Insider survey and multiple other surveys such including the ABS – what is important in voting and whether hudud is important vis-à-vis other factors, hudud is less important. Religion generally only ranks high as a determinant for voting for a small share of the electorate, less than 15 percent, with this divided equally among Muslim and non-Muslim voters.

To put this differently, hudud is not a vote-getter – resolving problems, bread and butter issues, good governance, honest government, good respected leaders and much more count more. Hudud does not win votes – good policies and good government do!

Introducing hudud does however lose votes for PAS as a party. There is serious trust deficit for this Islamist party, among non-Muslims, women and among some Malays. Focus groups identify the main source of distrust as hudud. It is not religion specifically, as many Malaysians across faiths want a moral government, but the perception that hudud is about ‘restrictions and control’, ‘unfairness’ and ‘backwardness’ – the respondent’s words.

When voters were asked why they voted for PAS that never had before, the reasons were ‘Pakatan,’ ‘ABU’, ‘Change the government’. The affinity to PAS specifically was weak. Hudud never came up.

When it was broached and voters were asked how they would vote if hudud was implemented, the response that emerged as ‘ABP’ – Anything but PAS. This provoked much stronger negative reactions than support for hudud among even the strongest PAS supporters.

The take-away is that hudud pushes away the voters that offer PAS an opportunity to move out of its core political base or even to strengthen its base within its core. With hudud, at this time based on these surveys, PAS, would not be elected on the national level and definitely not on its own.

A final finding is that by moving forward with hudud PAS has reinforced a negative image of itself among the electorate. It is seen as a one-note party – hudud, hudud, hudud – with many people not liking the rhythm or the song. The image of hudud remains significantly negative among the majority of the electorate who see this about punishment rather than empowerment, backwardness rather than the future and inadequate as a basis of government.

The Kelantan amendments may change this perception, but based on the studies to date, negative perceptions dominate.

The Kelantan and ulama leaders in PAS are going ahead. There has been little in-depth study of the impact of the hudud messaging on voters and this will be crucial as the situation evolves. The message sent so far is that the PAS leadership seems to prioritize their core support base rather than being a national party, and may not even bring them the gains they hope for.

Part I: PAS’s hudud folly – a political putsch

Part III will look at the implications of hudud for Pakatan and PAS’s longer term, highlighting that this experience offers opportunities to strengthen PAS and Pakatan.