KUALA LUMPUR - The annual congress of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) begins on Thursday (April 27) in Kedah state, with more than 1,200 delegates of Malaysia's second biggest political party gathering to discuss PAS' strategy for the country's next general election and how to move closer towards the party's vision of governing an Islamic state.
All eyes will be on whether PAS severs its ties with the opposition coalition for good, and opts to team up with Malaysia's biggest party, the 3.2 million-strong Umno led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Decisions made here in the coming days will set the stage for how the country's upcoming general election will be fought.
PAS, an opposition party with 800,000 members, has closed ranks to prepare for the next polls, widely speculated to be called this year. Both the posts of PAS president and deputy president went uncontested in its recent biennial elections.
PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan said: "Our focus is on the general election. Everyone already considers this as the toughest election."
PAS Congress: On the agenda
• Leaders from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) are gearing up for the next general election, due to be called by mid-2018. Delegates are keen to discuss how to win seats, having agreed not join Malaysia’s main opposition parties under the Pakatan Harapan coalition. PAS wants to contest 80 out of 222 Parliament seats; this will mean that it will clash with
Pakatan Harapan candidates.
• Delegates and leaders will laud PAS’ achievement in Parliament earlier this month, when it read out a Bill proposing harsher Syariah Court punishments. They see this as as a vote clincher among the Malays and motivation to push forward Islamic law.
• PAS elders will decide it the party wants to abandon political cooperation with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). PAS, PKR and the Democratic Action Party together rule Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state. Severing ties with PKR will mean losing posts within the state government as well as control of mosques in the state.
• Closer ties with the ruling Barisan Nasional alliance’s main party Umno may prove to be a thorny issue. While PAS leaders insist the relationship is strictly related to matters of religion, the new friendship between decades-long bitter foes may be a tough sell to many PAS members.
Party leaders are keen to drum up its recent successes, while attacking other opposition parties as unreliable partners.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang earlier this month read out in Parliament a Bill to propose harsher punishments by Malaysia's Syariah Courts, seizing that moment as proof of his party's ability to champion the Islamic cause by working with Umno, which controls the House.
Despite the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition backing out of officially supporting the Bill, PAS' ability to present it sent tongues wagging that Umno, the main BN component party, was working together with PAS to push forward an Islamic agenda that many feel would be popular with their main vote bank - the Malay community.
Said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre: "If anything, it helps PAS show the Malay undecided voters that it truly has freedom of action to push for syariah now that it is no longer in the (opposition) coalition."
The PAS-Umno romance has seen Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi share a stage with Datuk Seri Najib last December to champion the rights of the Rohingya, Myanmar's Muslim minority.
And in February, Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom attended a PAS rally with Mr Hadi to call for stiffer syariah penalties.
PAS is now tightly controlled by ultra-conservative Mr Hadi, after its more liberal-minded leaders were pushed out at internal polls two years ago.
The splinter group formed Parti Amanah Negara, a member of the opposition pact.
The purge has allowed PAS to abandon its more moderate stance, seen in the last two elections, when it was part of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance which included the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Malay-led multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
The DAP, PKR and Amanah, along with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), helmed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, have now joined hands under the new Pakatan Harapan opposition pact.
PAS has refused to join the alliance, saying the DAP rejects its Islamic aspirations while Amanah is filled with PAS rejects.
At the congress in Kedah, some PAS leaders will urge the party to cut its ties with PKR, led by jailed opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim, after a PKR leader accused the Islamist party of receiving millions from Umno.
PAS will also discuss how to retain Kelantan, win control of Kedah and Terengganu, and become a key force in Selangor and Perak.
But observers say the Islamist party risks losing its current 14 Parliament seats if it does not work with the main opposition alliance and prevent three-cornered fights, especially against Umno-led Barisan Nasional.
"There's unhappiness on the ground. PAS won't likely get all the support it received in the past," said DAP lawmaker Liew Chin Tong, referring to rural Malay voters torn over PAS' dalliance with Umno.
The PAS congress is being held in Kedah's capital Alor Setar from Thursday until Monday.