Dilemma In Umno-PAS Relationship

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By Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani

In the 14th general elections, for the first time we saw Barisan Nasional lose to Pakatan Harapan. PH managed to form the federal government and in all states except Perlis and Pahang still governed by BN, and Kelantan and Terengganu by PAS.

After GE14, Sarawak is governed by a coalition called Gabungan Party Sarawak (GPS) made up of former BN component parties which left BN to form GPS.

Since the end of GE14, the Malays interestingly talk much more about the future of BN and Umno, especially after BN is survived only by three parties: Umno, MIC and MCA, instead of 13 partners like in the past.

The big question is about how Umno can survive without any political power and how the party can play its role to champion the Malay causes.

Many also see that the best way for the Malays to remain strong is for Umno and PAS to form a coalition. Some say Umno and PAS have formed unofficial partnership already. One thing is clear, though: Umno and PAS are now willing to collaborate but the move is not without controversy from grassroots members of both parties, plus rejection from MCA on any collaboration with PAS.

In the last general election, BN/Umno managed to lure PAS away PH even though PKR was trying hard to persuade PAS to stay with the coalition. PAS subsequently partnered with a small party and NGOs to form a third coalition called Gagasan Sejahtera (GS).

PAS managed to be the option and alternative for voters unhappy with BN or PH. BN’s strategy of three-cornered fights backfired. PAS was not only splitting PH’s votes, but also BN’s.

Although Umno managed to win 54 parliamentary seats, mostly Malay-dominated ones, PAS actually managed to take control of Kelantan and Terengganu. The failure to capture Putrajaya left both parties initiating a partnership in a bid to win back the federal government.

Recently, several Umno leaders including Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi attended the PAS general assembly. In fact, the collaboration between PAS and BN in the Sungai Kandis and Seri Setia by-elections is seen as a positive sign for a meaningful relationship, according to PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang.

Hadi explained that in the relationship with Umno, “we will proceed with the ta’awun concept, which is cooperation in matters of mutual benefit and avoiding matters against party principles. But cooperation as an opposition front is important”.

Such a relationship received criticisms from the PH government. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad described the relationship between PAS and Umno as being akin to that of “siblings” after the Sungai Kandis by-election, where PAS was seen giving an easy way out to Umno by not fielding its candidate there. The same goes with the by-election in Seri Setia where Umno did not contest and was campaigning for PAS candidate.

In reality, it is normal for opposition parties to collaborate to form a more significant force in facing the mighty ruling government. Nevertheless, the collaboration between Umno and PAS is not well received by many, including leaders and supporters of both parties. This leads to a dilemma for both parties if they insist to go ahead with their plan to collaborate further.

Compared to Umno, PAS is slightly less excited in pursuing such collaboration. They know that Umno is much stronger in the parliament than PAS. Somehow, PAS wants to be a more dominant component in the Malay-Muslim coalition than Umno.

Klang Member of Parliament Charles Santiago has urged the PH government to exercise caution over the possibility of a political alliance between Umno and PAS, saying the Islamist party is “not as stupid” as Umno.

He said, “Even if they form a loose coalition with any of the opposition parties, Umno or otherwise, it’s PAS that will be dominant. They’re not stupid.”

I disagree with Santiago because I think Umno will not allow this to happen. Umno still wants to be dominant. Fighting over who will be more dominant than the other will eventually lead to a collapse in the Umno-PAS relationship, like what happen to Pakatan Rakyat before.

PAS essentially knows they want Umno to help it to reach Putrajaya not by securing only Malay votes but also support from Sabah, Sarawak and non-Malays in Peninsula. PAS realizes now that it is unable to become a national party any more, and that it is difficult for them to retain Kelantan and Terengganu or even win Kedah without the help from other parties.

PAS has noticed that many parties are against its brand of political Islam. That is why it wants Umno to assist it by bringing PAS in unity with other parties. MIC has announced that it is willing to work with PAS.

Umno, on the other hand, is desperate to get support from any party to strengthen BN. Therefore, collaboration with PAS has become one of the most important agendas for the party post-GE14.

However, not everyone likes the idea of a cooperation with PAS. Khairy Jamaluddin has vocally criticized the collaboration. In addition, since the Umno elections in July, Umno seems to be facing an internal leadership crisis. There is no clear direction under the leadership of Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Umno is more of a far-right movement now, no longer moderate or following centrism. There is so far no attempt to rebrand Umno, meaning the party has to erase its image as a corrupt and feudalistic party. These factors have resulted in several Umno MPs leaving the party, especially Mustapa Mohamad. If more and more MPs and Umno supporters are leaving the party, this can lead to a break-up of the party.

Looking into the future of collaboration between Umno and PAS, both parties will face difficulty and resistance, internally and externally. In terms of ideology, there is nothing much to compare nowadays between Umno and PAS because both have almost similar approaches in politics which are very conservative, nationalistic and Islamist, and both have agreed to the ideas of an Islamic state and hudud.

Some might argue that the best thing Umno and PAS can do is to merge. This, however, is out of question as both parties have long history and tradition, and loyalists of both parties will not allow this to happen.

Thus, it is obvious that there is no clear future in this collaboration between PAS and Umno. If there is no certainty in relationship, the voters, allies and the youths will distant themselves from the parties.

Clearly, Umno and PAS have huge tasks in the future to win the hearts and minds of multiracial and mutireligious Malaysians. So far, their collaboration would perhaps win hearts and minds of some Malays, but definitely not all Malays and Malaysians as a whole. PH up to now has a better brand of politics than PAS and Umno-BN.

(Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani is professor of political science at Universiti Utara Malaysia.)