COMMENT: Malaysia’s Islamist party PAS heads to its 59th muktamar this week, electing its leadership once again as it does on a biannual basis.
The party’s elections have come under the microscope, with attention riveted on the heated contests between the ‘pro-ulama’ and ‘progressives’ or ‘Erdogan’ factions.
The decisions made at the muktamar this week will set the course for the opposition in the years ahead and determine whether the Islamist party will be able to bridge some of its internal divisions that played a major role in diminishing its electoral performance in the 13th general election (GE13), especially in Kedah, or continue on a path towards splintering itself and the hopes of a united national opposition.
To begin with, it is important to start with a caveat. PAS is the party in Malaysia that holds its party elections most frequently, for short two-year terms, and it has a record of reversing directions, with the pendulum swinging to both the more conservative and liberal directions.
This is to say that whatever happens in the muktamar is a reflection on ongoing trends and tensions within the party itself that are evolving and will evolve further, post-muktamar.
This said, much of the attention in the media has centered on the increasingly heated ideological differences of the two factions and the personalities involved. It is necessary to unpack what the underlying ideological issues are, as they are intertwined.
It is also important to acknowledge that the issues facing PAS are affecting Islamist parties globally. To simplify, I boil the issues down to four: leadership, alliances, doctrine and strategy.
Leadership composition and consultation
With attention centered on the ulama – many of whom are actually ustaz – the focus is on the senior leadership contests and who should comprise the party’s leadership.
This issue has long been debated in PAS and among Islamists generally. Should the party be exclusively ulama-led, and if not what role should others play in the leadership process?
This issue is not an easy one for any religious party. What has brought the issue to the fore in recent years has been the pressures of being in government on a broader, more national scale.
Increasingly experts – non-ulama – have moved to the forefront in representing PAS in governance, and this has fostered a dynamics of displacement for the ulama within the party and, for some, engendered a perceived climate of siege against the ulama.
This has been compounded by perceptions of an inability of many of the ustaz to show an understanding of the pressing issues facing the country, beyond religion.
It is not just about the role that ulama play individually, but the process of decision-making moving away from more consensus leadership towards divergence, often with the ulama openly differing with an elected representative, as two different forms of political legitimacy are contested.
One claims legitimacy through learning about religion and the other through the decisions of people believed to be shaped by faith. Increasingly, both sides are opting for non-consultation with each other, contributing to increasing division within the party as a whole.
The ulama have raised the stakes for this election, taking a stand that is forcing hard choices. At the muktamar, delegates have been presented with a stark choice, to opt for a more exclusive ulama dominance or a more inclusive, diverse leadership.
Friends and enemies
A related issue involves who should PAS ally itself with, or whether it should ally at all. Recently, post-GE13, the focus has been on PAS’ role in Pakatan, with concerns raised about the prospect of PAS leaving Pakatan persisting.
The deadline threats given by PAS candidates to its Pakatan partners in places like Penang – a product primarily of politicking for positions – reflect a reservation and insecurity among many in PAS within Pakatan.
Among some, there is discomfort working with non-Muslims, perceived inferiority vis-a-vis other parties, and the perception (in fact misperception when one looks at the electoral results) that Pakatan Rakyat has weakened the party electorally, especially among its Malay base.
National support for PAS has expanded, as seen in the increase in the popular vote, and based on an estimate of polling centre voting patterns, Malay support only dropped by two percent, still higher than in 2004. The losses were largely concentrated in Kedah, and to a lesser extent in Kelantan.
The inward orientation of many PAS members, especially those based in the East Coast, contribute to these insecure views of GE13, pressuring PAS to return to the past position of going it alone.
However, that position of going it alone is no longer a reality in today’s politics. One lesson of GE13 is that without allies you are likely to either be wiped out or minimally lose out to UMNO. Kota Damansara is a case in point.
Divide-and-rule is a tactic that was honed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and remains a key ingredient in the UMNO arsenal. In fact, the dynamics of pushing to leave Pakatan is being fuelled by UMNO, which continues to present itself as a potential ally and is attempting to infiltrate the party.
There are concerns that UMNO has made headway in its effort to splinter PAS. There appears to have been a concerted effort to woo members in PAS through financial incentives, gifts in kind to religious schools, offers of business contracts, television advertising space, and more.
These infiltration efforts have been reinforced by the mainstream media criticising PAS for allegedly failing to defend Islam and supposedly losing autonomy to the Chinese.
The use of fear, insecurity and divide-and-rule tactics have been longstanding, but as UMNO has increasingly faced the reality of no increase in popular support in GE13, it has been ratcheted up by the mainstream media and the liars-for-hire bloggers’ activities.
The aim is to split PAS, and in doing so, break up the party that has increased its support among Malays by over 50 percent since the early 1990s, thereby destroying this challenge to UMNO.
At the muktamar, delegates will decide which side they will ally in who they select in their leadership. A clear signal will be sent if they cut off leaders who are the bridge for communication and mutual understanding.
This issue, more than the question of leadership, has the potential to shatter PAS’ electoral fortunes and divide it from its electoral base for generations.
The decision about alliances is complicated by political doctrine or rather political indoctrination over religion. Debate over Islam in Malaysia, as everyone knows is highly politicised, with the movement sadly towards greater intolerance. There has been an evolving “us versus them” dichotomy and language, full of attacking labels and lacking nuance, or understanding.
Increasingly Islam is being portrayed as something to be possessed and defended rather than shared or appreciated, with the rights of those who differ both in the faith and outside of it increasingly curbed.
This political narrowing of Islam has led to more polarised views about Islam in Malaysia, which have in turn fostered more intolerance across the faiths.
This has been fed by many (although not all) Islamic religious authorities who often blatantly disregard the rule of law, are seen as arrogantly vested in wielding their power, and perceived to have long forgotten the premises of religious freedom. There is no longer an appreciation that choice is a crucial ingredient in the practice and honouring of any faith.
Intolerance has also been fuelled by UMNO, which has tried to strengthen its position politically by dominating the discourse over religion through not only its support of religious authorities but the indirect funding of NGOs that have become uncivil proponents of distortions.
UMNO, with its moral decay over issues of corruption, has had to outsource its efforts to seek religious legitimacy. The dominant UMNO paradigm is thus one that follows the racial chauvinism of the party over Malay rights; it is a paradigm in which Islam is being defended or wielded as a weapon against the rights of non-Muslims.
In schools (and school canteens), mosques, media outlets and in the social media, this UMNO paradigm of Islam become more dominant, contributing to an erosion of decency and kindness.
While there are many deeply conservative PAS ustaz – many of whom are running for office this round – who buy into the tenets of the UMNO paradigm of the religion, what is not appreciated is that within PAS there are robust discussions about what the faith should be and over the last decade these discussions have widened. These have become the arenas for nuance and differences, where black and white labels are dismissed in favour of grey and colour.
This debate over doctrine is frightening for many, even within PAS itself. It is easier to see the world through one set of dark lenses rather than to open up to varied shades of light. This party election involves not only positions over doctrine, but the ability to debate ideas; it involves democratising the discourse over Islam.
How to manage Malaysia’s widening democracy has created other challenges for PAS. PAS is a political party and like all political parties its main aim is to get into government. From 2008 onwards, PAS has evolved into a national party, and the decisions over strategy are increasingly complex and complicated.
The days of winning by attending weddings and funerals in the rural areas are largely over. Personality politics is waning as it being replaced by debates over issues and populist hand-outs. PAS is playing catch-up. It is thus not a surprise that factionalism and differences have expanded, and the debate over the electoral tactics to adopt has intensified.
Many in PAS are concerned with their core base – Kelantan. Should the tactic for PAS be to defend its current base, especially Kelantan, or should it expand? If so, how should it do this? Without candidates standing outside of the state, bringing home voters to the state, Kelantan would have likely fallen to Umno. The challenge of governing rural Malay states well is now centre stage, with the issues of inclusion and expertise coming to the fore.
The challenge for the future strategy remains. Should PAS appeal to economic concerns or return to earlier failed options such as hudud? What can be done to strengthen the economic credentials of the party or should they return to religious law?
These issues have come to the surface again, as one would expect after GE13, an election where the party did not meet its own expectations and lost the state of Kedah.
Why did it lose this state? Was it a decline of Chinese support compared to the national average, poor governance, religious issues or leadership? The answers to these questions are not easy to answer, as there are many views.
The lesson of Terengganu in GE13 is revealing, a place where PAS gained ground and almost won back the state. Instead of using a strategy of religion, PAS opted for good governance and pointed to the excesses of the current state leadership, especially the Menteri Besar, Ahmad Said. In contrast to 2004 where a conservative hudud religious agenda alienated voters, focusing on good governance yielded stronger support.
The debates over GE13 are ongoing and used for political mileage in the fight for leadership positions. In fact, one irony of what is happening in the party campaign is that serious introspection of PAS’ electoral performance is being overshadowed by performers in the party election.
Altogether, there are broadly two routes. One that is touted is that PAS should follow a more conservative religious path, to return to the past and go into the arms of UMNO.
Malaysia’s ruling party wants PAS to be divided and in the mode of the past, as it knows this will secure its position. Another is to diversify the issues of political engagement, to include good governance and the economy. This is the more difficult and risk-taking choice.
For many, these are not mutually exclusive paths, but there is a matter of prioritisation and these have become linked with the different factions and campaigning, with the pro-ulama camp opting for a more conservative religious route and the progressives pushing for more inclusion and diversity in political engagement.
The 1,300-plus delegates have difficult decisions to make this week, and it is likely that whatever the outcome, these issues will not be solved in this meeting. Signals, however, will be sent, not just for the future direction of PAS, but whether the party is willing to make hard decisions and embrace a more democratic future.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.