Winds of change in PAS?

With the election of dynamic young professional leaders to key leadership positions within Islamic Party PAS, change is clearly in the air. Older stalwarts were replaced by a younger cohort of politicians committed to political pragmatism, including working with non-Muslims.

The dynamic new deputy party leader, Nasharudin Mat Isa, three non-ulama (religious scholar) vice-presidents and a professional dominated new executive council represent a marked shift in the party hierarchy that has become increasingly ulama governed and led.

The 2005 election has been touted as a change in the direction of the party reminiscent of the shift that began in the early 1980s that rebuilt the strength of the party as a stronger opposition alternative.

The new leadership line-up comes after a resounding defeat in the 2004 national polls, where PAS’ national parliamentary seats were reduced from 27 to 6 and the party lost the leadership of the country’s opposition.

On the surface, the new lineup has been seen as a move by delegates to respond to the new electoral realities of more multi-ethnic constituencies since the 2003 redelineation and an electoral platform that is more marketable to Malaysia’s silent majority of pragmatic and moderate voters. This interpretation remains premature in substance, as the new packaging of PAS as an electoral alternative is evolving, and highly conflictual within the rank and file. The party has to fully analyse the reasons for its loss at the polls.

Why then did this new lineup emerge? Perhaps the most underrated influence in the changes within PAS is Indonesia’s 2004 elections, specifically the sharp rise in support for Parti Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS). The PKS slate of clean local candidates of all races and religions and step back from the imposition of Islamic law increased its support eightfold in the April 2004 legislative elections.

The Anwar factor

The interaction between PAS and PKS, which has become increasingly robust over the last few years, have served to reinforce the need for pragmatic leadership particularly among ulama and underscored a shift in emphasis away from shariah law to a broader as yet unclarified idea of Islamic governance.

Many key ulama leaders in the party, primarily party president Abdul Hadi Awang, supported the new team. A second critical factor underlying change is Anwar Ibrahim. Since his release in September 2004, rumours of ties between the former deputy prime minister and PAS continue to circulate, often purely speculation.

Yet, a dialogue over the evolution of PAS in the context of Anwar’s release, which has emphasised the need to move back (or rather not move forward) from an ‘Islamic state’ and institutionalised shariah law, has created space for the pragmatists to rise to leadership positions. Third, and equally important, is the willingness of younger delegates to elect their own leaders and older leaders to step aside for new blood to emerge. Mustapha Ali’s decision not to contest and willingness to turn over the reigns to an as yet untested younger cohort is illustrative.

The June PAS polls represent a substantial turning point in Malaysian politics. Without open infighting and scarring division, PAS has achieved a successful generation transition in leadership through the democratic process.

Governing parties with the Barisan Nasional and other opposition parties, notably the DAP, have yet to regenerate in the post-Mahathir era, although some younger members have risen to power. Yet these changes have occurred largely through appointment and leave younger leaders beholden to patrons.

Older leaders continue to hold both power and position within political parties. PAS has stepped out this mold, and is placing its hope that the Islamic party’s democratic generational transformation will strengthen its appeal among the critical generation of voters under forty who will comprise the majority of voters.

At a minimum, the generation transition has revitalised the party, creating new energy that will deepen coordination among active party members at the grassroots level.

Behind the scenes another important reconfiguration of the party’s composition evolved in the polls, a broadening of female participation. While the Muslimat or women’s wing of the party was not able to win a vice-presidency or approval of a minimum quota of representation of delegates, the number of women participating and elected at state levels and within the leadership increased.

Women now make up a significant elected share of southern state representation, and are likely to continue to increase their role and influence within the party, especially at the grassroots. This reverses a trend that occurred through 1990s, as women candidates were marginalised, and opens the possibility of further broader representation.

The power of regional voices also changed. Traditionally the party has been governed by northern states, Kelantan, Kedah and of late Terengganu, although this state lacks the organisational party depth of the other two.

In the June polls, many southern delegates voted in blocs for the new lineup. While Selangor was understandably divided, since it represents a multi-regional grouping and slated a strong local candidate, the more multi-ethnic southern states voted for broader multi-ethnic engagement. Their support was crucial in the most contested race for deputy leader. The results were indeed national results, shaped by a less parochial world outlook prevalent in the dominant rural Malay north.

Ideological obstacles

Although the structural changes are significant and strengthen PAS, the election of ‘pragmatists’ does not as yet decisively signal an ideological change in the direction of the party beyond an apparent greater openness to dialogue. Structurally, the ulama – the ideologues of the party – continue to play an important role within the leadership. As was pointed out often from the floor of the muktamar (general assembly), the distinction between ‘professionals’ and ‘ulama’ is not as sharp as portrayed. How much pragmatism will reign over theocracy remains to be seen in practice.

The party faces three difficult ideological obstacles in order to effectively reach out to voters more broadly, particularly non-Muslims. First, the legacy of the institutionalisation of Islamic governance in Terengganu and to a lesser extent in Kelantan remains unresolved. What role the implementation of the shariah will play needs to be clarified, especially for non-Muslims. The party is unlikely to be adequately clear in its position to win the trust of non-Muslims, for fear that clarity would alienate many of its conservative supporters and open up ideological divisions within the party.

The dilemma of defining Islamic governance is further compounded by an apparent unwillingness to listen to other Muslim and non-Muslim voices over religion. The attacks on non-governmental voices, moral policing, and inter-faith dialogue illustrate a deeply entrenched conservatism that has yet to translate into democratic tolerant practice.

Two core elements of this dialogue dilemma are perceived inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims, who have yet to be given an equitable position at the table for discussion, and conflict between the right of individual and the community.

To date, PAS has prioritised the rights of Muslims interpreted by a small group of ulama in the name of the community, but not necessarily for the rights of the community. Navigating the path among whose voices have the right to be heard and should be heard and respected will remain tempestuous, especially as PAS will continue to claim the Islamic moral high ground for political legitimacy and in the process potentially take on more and more conservative positions.

If the problems of governance and dialogue were not enough, PAS faces a third dilemma over its political platform. The issue of economic justice, highlighted by attention to price increases, has recently reemerged, reflecting a real economic pinch on the ground due primarily to higher transportation costs. Yet, the issues PAS will use at the polls remained undefined. The platform will need to be significant to bridge the mistrust that has evolved over the last five years among moderate Muslims and non-Muslims and the party.

The upshot is that PAS is changing, strengthening structurally, but the ideological issues will continue to hamper the party as a viable electoral choice. As new leaders in PAS, the pragmatists are unlikely to move decisively to reshape the party’s ideological image; quick moves could indeed upset the new balance of elected forces.

Many in the PAS rank and file, notably within PAS Youth, are highly conservative and resistant to any ideological shifts. Pundits on the lookout for stronger opposition and alternative voices should in effect look at the new lineup with interest, but not perhaps with real weight until some of the ideological issues have been addressed. The winds are blowing, but it has yet to rain.