The recently concluded 65th annual meeting (Muktamar) of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) has consolidated the party’s leadership, with members showing renewed confidence in the opposition party.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang called on members to brace themselves for an early election that many anticipate could be called between 2020 and 2021.
Many PAS leaders are convinced that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed will call for elections instead of handing over the leadership mantle to Anwar Ibrahim.
In line with this belief, the Muktamar has seen party leaders close ranks with all the key party positions being uncontested.
With PAS performing better than observers had expected in the last general election by securing 18 seats in Parliament and winning back Terengganu, developments within the Islamist party bear watching.
At the Muktamar, the leadership transition was smooth with younger leaders taking over the positions of the powerful ulama (religious scholars) and youth wings of the party.
The newly elected PAS leadership reflected a balance between the ulama and professionals in the party.
While the party president, deputy president and two vice-presidents are from the ranks of ulama, the majority of the party’s central committee members and members of its youth and women wings hailed from professional backgrounds.
One PAS leader noted that the leadership line-up clearly dispels the notion that all its professional members have left the party to join the breakaway Parti Amanah Nasional (Amanah), which is now part of the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.
One noteworthy appointment is that of Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar as PAS’ new party vice-president. The chief minister of Terengganu’s meteoric rise from being the party president’s political secretary in 2008 to party vice-president now indicates that he is likely to play a key role in the future.
His able leadership of Terengganu and consultative leadership style — seen in his ability to maintain good relations with the federal government and leaders of the main political parties, including PH component parties — have made him a leading candidate to succeed Hadi Awang as the next president of PAS.
UMNO INFIDELS NO MORE?
One of the key outcomes of the Muktamar is a decision by members to approve a resolution in support of a political alliance with the United Malay National Organisation (Umno), which lost power in the last election but still has 40 seats in the 222-seat Parliament.
The cooperation was hotly debated by delegates.
A vast majority of party members supported the cooperation as necessary for the sake of protecting the rights of the Malays and defending the position of Islam, which many PAS members felt has come under threat due to the policies of the PH government.
However, delegates also cautioned the party leadership that the terms of such cooperation must be made clear.
Some argued that PAS should be the lead party if a formal alliance is formed with Umno while others warned that the party could split further if the party leadership fails to properly explain the rationale of this cooperation to party members.
The newly-minted chief of the PAS Ulama Council, Nik Zawawi Salleh, even went as far as to declare the cooperation as wajib (religiously obligated) so that the alliance can capture control of the government and implement Islam at the administrative level.
Reservations about this cooperation have come largely from delegates in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu where the political competition with Umno has been historically intense.
One PAS leader from Kelantan called on Umno members to repent before they can be fully embraced by PAS given that the previous Umno-led government had denied Kelantan its oil royalties and blocked the implementation of Islamic criminal law.
Dr Mahathir has also entered the fray by reminding PAS leaders that they referred to Umno leaders as kafir (infidels) and that PAS risked sullying its Islamic credentials by cooperating with an un-Islamic party.
PAS leaders have in turn argued that Dr Mahathir’s remarks should be a clear indication that an Umno-PAS coalition will pose a serious threat to the PH.
A PARTY ON THE ASCENT?
The Muktamar, the second held after the May 2018 general election, saw a renewed confidence in the party membership.
While many members were shocked by the general election results with some questioning whether the party has erred in leaving the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, the party is rejuvenated by the possibility of forming the next government through an alliance with Umno.
Mr Hadi has consolidated his position as president, united its membership and created a cohesive ideological stance for the party.
One PAS leader noted that the party is confident that an Umno-PAS alliance will capture at least 65 per cent of the Malay votes which will allow the alliance to form a government with a simple majority and retain control of the state governments of Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Pahang. They are also aiming to take over the states of Kedah, Perak and Melaka.
The combined votes between Umno and PAS in the 2018 general election would have secured the parties enough state seats to control these state governments, but the two parties were not allies then.
In the last general election, it was also estimated that PAS and Umno captured between 65 and 70 per cent of the Malay votes. As such, this assertion by PAS that a partnership with Umno could see them take power is not far-fetched.
Most importantly for PAS, its long-term plan to implement Islamic law will be achieved if the Umno-PAS alliance is to take power.
Mr Hadi himself seems so confident about this eventuality that he is in the midst of writing a book in Arabic aimed at the Middle Eastern Islamist parties and audience about PAS’ experience and success in Islamist democratic politics.
While some commentators have dismissed PAS’ chance of survival after the last election and have predicted the party’s relegation to obscurity in the New Malaysia, this categorisation of PAS is grossly inaccurate.
Building on the insecurity amongst many Malaysian Malays that Malay rights and Islam are threatened by policies of the PH government, PAS is emerging as a real contender for power in Malaysia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is Assistant Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.