Is a new PAS emerging?

Malaysia's Islamist party PAS' 63rd congress did not result in a much-discussed break from the opposition alliance. But it did offer PAS' vision for the future, which may see it become a kingmaker in Malaysian politics.

Last week, on April 29, soon after the evening call to prayer, a freak storm blew where the 63rd PAS muktamar, or party congress, was being held in Alor Setar, Kedah. Many tents collapsed, injuring several people.

Amanah, the splinter party of PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia), was swift to issue a statement of sympathy. PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang later described the strong wind as a divine test for PAS - "as well as our opponents".

The storm, an unprecedented event during a muktamar, however, did not derail the PAS congress, nor distract it from its main agenda: to chart a new course through the much bigger tempest in Malaysian politics, marked by the splintering of parties, making the opposition scene more crowded. Indeed, the big question on everyone's mind was what kind of PAS would emerge from the gathering.

This year's PAS muktamar was significant. Firstly, it is also a party election year - the country's 14th general election has to be called by June next year, but is widely expected some time this year.

Secondly, PAS was to decide whether to make the final break from the opposition coalition which it helped form two elections ago - Pakatan Harapan (PH), a reconstructed alliance previously known as Pakatan Rakyat.

All eyes were on a formal termination of its political cooperation pact - tahaluf siyasi - with the last of its opposition links, the People's Justice Party, or Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), led by the wife of Anwar Ibrahim.

However, PAS' top leaders held off making a decision to sever ties with PKR despite pressure from a section of the party membership.

Thirdly, this complete break, if ultimately endorsed by PAS' Majlis Syura Ulama (Council of Ulama), would launch PAS on its own trajectory while possibly sinking any lingering chance of dethroning the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) led by Prime Minister Najib Razak's United Malays National Organisation (Umno). Indeed, ahead of the PAS congress, there was talk that Datuk Seri Najib would exploit PAS' final break with the opposition by calling the widely expected general election before Ramadanstarts in the last week of this month.


Parti Islam SeMalaysia president Abdul Hadi Awang (centre) at a polling booth in 2015. His plan of a new opposition grouping could be the swing factor that will decide the next government. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

All signs seemed to point to a "new" PAS emerging, with the Islamist party striking out on its own to lead a "third bloc" and playing the role of a kingmaker - two key phrases frequently heard during the week of the congress.

Indeed, the Alor Setar muktamar also threw up some early signs of PAS forging a new vision and strategy of going alone in an increasingly unpredictable and uncertain political landscape following the 2015 exodus of its core of politically savvy reformists and professionals.

PAS seems conflicted on whether it should cut off ties with the opposition alliance completely, or forge a united front with the ruling Umno based on the grand idea of Malay-Muslim unity.

NEW OPPOSITION COALITION?

There are three core elements in PAS' new posture.

The first is the rise of what Datuk Seri Hadi calls Blok Ketiga, or the Third Bloc, positioned as a new coalition called Gagasan Sejahtera (Group of Harmony). This new political alliance will presumably be led by PAS but may also include public personalities, community leaders, former senior officials and non-governmental organisations.

In his presidential speech last Saturday, Mr Hadi described this as "the foundation to face the increasingly tense political atmosphere".

The second element is the push for a Gelombang Tsunami Hijau (Green Tsunami) for harmonious and peaceful change, an approach that will "unite various races" who will, at the same time, "understand the aspirations of the Muslim community".

The third element is a vision to be launched ahead of the coming general election called Wawasan Induk Negara Sejahtera or Harmonious Nation Vision.

Following this vision, Gagasan Sejahtera will strive for harmony, justice, transparency and effective governance with Islam as the guide, "consistent with the position of Islam as a religion of the federation".

Electoral politics and political change will be pursued without conflict while avoiding "the politics of hate, community enmity and chauvinism".

At a press conference later, Mr Hadi said PAS was opposed to the Chinese-dominated secularist Democratic Action Party (DAP) because it was "chauvinistic" and "against the role of Islam in the country, although Islam is the religion of the federation".

In terms of electoral strategy, PAS projected a target of winning 40 parliamentary seats and capturing five states, presumably through the "third bloc".

These targets were endorsed at the congress by Mr Hadi, and backed up by the head of the PAS research arm, Dr Zuhdi Marzuki. Dr Zuhdi said PAS' targets were "not empty talk" but based on research and a scan of "a hundred scenarios".

BOLD VISION OR TOO AMBITIOUS?

The vision, mission and strategy unveiled by the repositioned PAS is unprecedented in its clarity of thought and strategic design.

Such exposition of strategy is also uncharacteristic of Mr Hadi, whose regular congress speeches tend to avoid such details.

But, while the plan looks good on paper, questions are being asked on whether the post-2015 PAS is being driven by an ambition that is as unrealistic as it is bold. To begin with, winning over 40 parliamentary seats as well as five states is a huge jump from PAS' current hold of 14 parliamentary seats and the control of one state, Kelantan.

Secondly, PAS is a party that has just gone through a major split. This is bound to show cracks down the rank and file. Indeed, Mr Hadi and other leaders still harbour suspicions about fence-sitters or sleeper supporters of the breakaway party Amanah - which has since joined the PH alliance - which they branded as "harumanis local mango" - green on the outside, orange inside (also the colour of Amanah).

Thirdly, the new PAS strategy assumes some kind of peace pact with Umno. But the possibility of the PAS rank and file revolting against Mr Hadi cannot be ruled out if he goes all out to forge peace with Umno. The PAS grassroots have been too conditioned to be anti-Umno. A peace pact with Umno may backfire and lead to a further split in PAS. This will certainly undermine the target of winning 40 parliamentary seats and five states.

But,while PAS is aiming high, the party's secret ambition really seems to be to become the new kingmaker in the Malaysian political landscape. If it succeeds in building up the "third bloc" that is neither with the opposition PH nor the ruling Umno, this bloc could be the swing factor that will decide which of the other two coalitions gets to form the next government.

This is a shrewd move because neither the BN nor the opposition PH will be strong enough to rule on its own. They will need the numbers to win the simple majority. Those numbers will come from the "third bloc", or specifically from PAS.

The five states that PAS hopes to win will, in the end, likely be a negotiated power-sharing partnership - between PAS and Umno, or PAS and PKR, or PAS and Bersatu, led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.


  • The writer is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. An earlier version of this article appeared in RSIS Commentary.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2017, with the headline 'Is a new PAS emerging?'. Print Edition | Subscribe