Bridget Welsh | Malaysiakini
Islamist parties throughout the world are grappling with new roles and responsibilities. PAS is no exception.
The discussions at the party’s muktamar held in Kota Bharu last weekend highlight that PAS is adapting to new conditions globally and nationally, and in fact embracing reform.
Perhaps more than any party in Malaysia, PAS is engaging in accommodation.
Despite news reports focusing on the comments of one or two individuals – a common feature, especially in the reporting of Malaysia’s Islamic party – PAS is moving towards a more nationally-oriented position in which it can play a prominent role as a partner in an alternative government.
In fact, judging by its actions and the meeting taken as a whole rather than the words reported, the muktamar highlights that PAS is continuing to embrace more progressive positions, especially among its leadership.
Its challenges, however, have more to do with winning over its more parochial and conservative membership that is reluctant to change and struggling to adapt and understand a more complex and demanding political environment.
We are for Pakatan
One message that resounded at the muktamar was PAS’ commitment to Pakatan Rakyat. Every component of the party – from the ulama and the spiritual leader to the women’s wing – stated categorically that PAS was an integral part of the alternative coalition.
In fact, those linked to the alternative position of ‘unity’ with Umno were conspicuously absent. The unity group has been marginalised in PAS, and even faced open criticism for taking positions in public that conflict with the consensus of the leadership.
The surprising person leading the charge in this criticism was no other than one of the most conservative ulama, Harun Din. Definitively, PAS has taken a stand: we are for Pakatan.
This message was apparent in other ways as well. Rather than present its own alternative vision of governance – as has happened in the past with the welfare state concept, for example – the thrust was on reaffirming connections to the common platform, notably the Buku Jingga.
This sense of collaboration was repeatedly echoed in the inclusion of non-Malays (whose support is essential for the party to hold onto its current seats and make electoral gains in states like Negeri Sembilan and Johor) and in engagement with the artistic and cultural communities.
Importantly, discussion on the decisive, dividing issue of hudud was muted as its leaders aimed to show that, in the spirit of consensus, they would seek common ground. Repeatedly, the call for political consensus, tahaluf siyasi, was made – a consensus that its Pakatan partners will find essential.
The PAS at this muktamar was not wedded to the past, but engaged in outreach for the future. The image of PAS as a group of mullah defending narrow conceptualisations of tradition and religion, banning social activities and limiting freedoms is no longer fair. The identity of PAS as a political party is changing.
While some in the old guard and their protégées in the Youth wing are uncomfortable with PAS’ more modern open approach, the leadership as a whole, presided by Abdul Hadi Awang and reinforced by an overwhelming majority of progressives in the central committee and as members of parliament, embraced collaboration and greater tolerance.
The repeated attacks on Umno and Najib Abdul Razak’s tenure further illustrated that their sights are focused in its partnership in Pakatan. Closing the meeting on the last day with a prayer for Umno’s defeat in elections was a powerful signal.
The affirmation of a Pakatan commitment has been overshadowed by questions arising from mainstream media reports on the muktamar, namely the issue of whether Hadi Awang wants to be premier and whether he supports Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim in that position.
Attention continues to centre on possible points of division, with the hope of driving a wedge among parties that have worked and governed together for four years.
Hadi Awang repeated that he does not want the premiership. Many people, however, refuse to accept his response.
Tackling trust deficits
Globally, Islamist parties face trust deficits. PAS faces this on multiple fronts – from whether the party is truly loyal to the opposition to their goals in office. PAS is also hounded by its past, when it joined Umno in the 1970s, only to lose its credibility, and its soul. Memories of PAS’ betrayal of the trust of voters run deep, especially among older voters.
Even more suspicion exists among liberals and/or non-Muslims who believe that PAS is the driver of religious intolerance, curbs on religious freedom and limits on women’s rights.
Years of media socialisation and PAS’s own record in places like Terengganu underscore this anxiety and it only takes a few trigger words such as “hudud” or “ulama leadership” to open the floodgates of possible additional trauma.
The fact is that trust once broken is very hard to rebuild. In this muktamar, PAS’ challenge of building trust manifested itself clearly as focus continued to be on the triggers of division rather than on cohesion. A question that arises from this muktamar is whether PAS can overcome this trust deficit with those who are inclined toward suspicion. Are doubts so embedded that views cannot change?
What is not always clearly understood is that PAS’s current young leadership is also facing a trust deficit from the old guard in the party. The proponents of internal distrust come from the protégées of the old guard ulama in the Youth wing.
While the rank-and-file are committed to Pakatan, some of the PAS’ delegates at the muktamar are uncertain about the progressive path adopted by the current leaders. This was evident in the attack on party organ Harakah for its open coverage of news. It was also evident in personal attacks on progressive PAS leaders who espouse tolerance.
The source of this distrust is multiple – many in the old guard are staunchly conservative and resist reform. PAS is not the only party with old fashioned outlooks, but disproportionally the party has many of them. The more cutting element of distrust comes from the fact that some of the progressives have openly called for an end to the ulama leadership of the party.
Some of the ulama feel under attack and this reinforces their defensiveness and, in some cases, reactionary responses. The ulama are uncomfortable with displacement and accepting accommodation as they feel this leads to their marginalisation. They are uneasy with the dissolution of their influence and this feeds into the distrust from within.
Political tests and risks
Bringing a party toward reform is never easy, especially when old mindsets persist. It is compounded when there are interests involved. It was thus clear that the progressive PAS leadership is facing its biggest test in the next election battle. They have to show with electoral victories that their approach is earning support.
It is not enough for the progressives to point to coalitions between Islamists and other groups in countries like Tunisia and Turkey, for the PAS progressive leadership has to deliver at home. A failure to win seats will allow the traditional, conservative old guard to return to the leadership.
This election is as much about Pakatan as it is about the future of Islamism in Malaysia. Voters will decide whether PAS is more tolerant, more democratic and inclusive, or whether it returns to the dark ages and pushes Malaysia away from a modern future.
Make no bones about it, the dark forces in PAS are waiting for the chance to come back to power at any sign of weakness of the current progressive leaders in the party.
On some fronts, they have interests in the failure of the PAS progressives. The old guards and their protégées want a return of stronger conservative ulama leadership, and are uncomfortable with the spiritual role that the ulama currently hold. They know that if PAS does well electorally, it will minimise the possibility of ulama taking on more positions in the helm of the party.
They also fear further displacement with greater electoral gains and winning government. Many ulama lack the skills to take on technocratic governing positions, and those with old guard mindsets are often too closed in outlook to win over the support needed for electoral victory. Insecurity among some inside the party fuels the internal distrust.
PAS delegates are also frustrated that they are on the firing line electorally. Many feel that PAS is competing in the most difficult seats, in Felda areas for example, and has uphill battles to win seats.
As the pouring of goodies continues in the Malay heartland in the rural constituencies dominated by state-owned media, PAS faces a serious struggle to win over voters.
Many delegates felt that the obstacles they face electorally in winning Malay votes was not appreciated within Pakatan and some even worried that the coming general election could lead to their marginalisation in the governing coalition.
The new role in Pakatan is not just about commitment to the coalition, but confidence that the party will continue to have a place and prominent position. Many delegates expressed the desire to be better treated in Pakatan, as an asset and partner.
While seats are competitive for all the parties, disproportionally PAS as a party does have serious obstacles in making electoral gains. The party is locked in a battle with Umno for Malay votes, and grappling with effective approaches to woo and reach non-Malay voters. What is telling is that advocating for hudud is not prominent among these approaches.
Instead there are three prongs in PAS’ contemporary engagement.
Foremost, PAS centres on the issue of corruption. This is the moral core of its campaign, the call for voters to reject abuses of power. The steps taken to declare assets within the party at the muktamar reveals that it is building safeguard procedures within the party.
Second, PAS has emphasised greater representativeness in its slate of candidates. It is bringing in more technocrats, former civil servants, entrepreneurs and security personal, and women. PAS is extending its umbrella to include more pluralism is its prospective candidates.
Finally, PAS has reaffirmed its adherence to democratic principles. When speaking to the delegates in his closing speech, Hadi Awang emphasised a premiership based on electoral performance, consensus and representativeness. Motions from the floor supported electoral reform movement Bersih and continued the commitment to electoral reform.
What was perhaps more telling in democratic governance was the willingness to allow open views from delegates to be expressed. This muktamar was not a controlled event as delegates were allowed to raise concerns, and some of the points from the floor bordered on the bizarre.
Unlike Umno, PAS has held party elections in the last few years and its leaders do have a party mandate. The leaders within the party faced criticism openly, a sign of strength not weakness.
One of the most striking elements in this muktamar within PAS was the appreciation of difference. The reality is that the delegates know there are different views, but these differences were acceptable. The tolerance of difference within PAS has grown in its evolution in Pakatan.
To judge a party based on its party congress is ultimately a flawed exercise. At best, the muktamar is a venue to assess trends and directions. Pakatan loyalty, progressive leadership and strengthening democracy stood out. This said, there are differences within PAS over many issues, from hudud and ulama leadership to electoral strategies.
But differences are normal. What is important is the way differences are addressed – through debate, engagement and adherence to principles. The 58th muktamar showed that the PAS is not shying away from these tough issues, an important evolution for any party hoping to win support to govern nationally.
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She was an observer at the 58th PAS Muktamar in Kota Baru.