A battle for the heart and soul of PAS

PAS delegates from all over the country are due to gather at Stadium Shah Alam next month for their muktamar, or general assembly. The dust has barely settled on the list of nominations—most notably, 16 for vice-president and 86 for the Central PAS Exco, making it the “most crowded contest” in the party’s history—but already tensions and questions have risen over the future direction of the party.

Penang PAS Deputy Commissioner Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa explored the possible implications of this muktamar, held at a time where Pakatan Rakyat has risen to become a strong opponent to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

“This muktamar is interesting because aside from the public, allies from DAP and PKR are watching in anticipation to strengthen ties between the parties. Among interested parties also are PAS’s rivals, Umno,” wrote the Parit Buntar MP in a post on Detikdaily, a pro-opposition website.

“PAS members are also pinning their aspirations on the incoming leadership in the hopes that they will carry the party’s image well as it garners attention from different ethnic groups.”

This point is a salient one. As their muktamar draws closer, the one million members of the country’s second biggest political party are no doubt feeling the pressure from within to pick a side in the varied arguments that have plagued the party.

Disagreements within the party
Earlier this month, a disagreement broke out among top guns when party spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat refused former Penang PAS Youth chief Mohd Hafiz Mohd Nordin’s call for a PAS candidate to be fielded in Penanti.

This is not the first time the party has faced such internal conflicts. When party president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang called for a Barisan Nasional-PAS unity government last year, PAS Youth was supportive, but Nik Aziz – who gave Abdul Hadi a stern reminder of who the captain of the ship is – did not agree to such a move.

While it might be simplistic to frame the fight as being that of the progressives (the so-called “Erdogan” faction) vs the conservatives (the ulama faction), there is a battle for the heart and soul of PAS that is raging on.

What they do, and what transpires during the muktamar will determine the future direction of the party, which has profound implications on Pakatan Rakyat.

Who are the Erdogans?
There is a growing number of progressives within PAS who see that the road to ruling the country will entail cooperation with different communities. These are the Erdogans, so-named in honour of Turkey’s moderate Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the party, those recognised to be in the progressive side are state assemblyman for Kubang Kerian Datuk Husam Musa, MPs Dr Zulkifli Ahmad, Dr Hatta Ramli, Datuk Dr Mujahid Rawa, Dr Lo’ Lo’ Ghazali, Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar and Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud as well as embattled Perak MB Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin.

In contrast, the more conservative wing is represented by Deputy President Nasharuddin Mat Isa, deputy spiritual advisers Datuk Dr Haron Din; MPs Datuk Harun Taib and Datuk Haji Mustafa Ali and Selangor Commissioner Datuk Hassan Mohd Ali.

Moving Forward
The party’s muktamar will see PAS electing its new leadership. The outcome will nudge the party closer into either to the right or the centre of the political spectrum.

While PAS will stand to gain by moving to a more central position, catering to the Malay-Muslim segment is still tempting, if only because it is the party’s comfort zone.

DAP’s MP for Bukit Bendera Liew Chin Tong, who did his Master’s thesis on PAS,  says that the progressives who understand the need to cooperate with other communities will likely win in this fight. “The PAS machinery from all over Malaysia have witnessed firsthand how the party garnered around 80% of the Chinese votes on its own in Bukit Gantang,” he says.

The non-Malays are not the only new bloc of voters whom PAS must win over. It also needs to attract urban Malays, which tend to have more secular concerns. “Issues like meritocracy, clean governance, and issues affecting all races, regardless of their party affiliation, are what this new bloc are looking at,” says PAS political analyst Asmawi Mohamad.

The implications for Pakatan Rakyat is great as PAS’s new leadership and consequently, its direction will determine if the opposition coalition will be able to gain control of the federal government.

“If PAS backtracks (and becomes more conservative), the results will mirror the general elections in 2004,” says Asmawi. “However, if the party stays on this more progressive track, it may actually become part of the federal government by the next general elections,” he adds.

No looking back
With the current match-up for the vice president post that sees Husam Musa going against fellow reformer Haji Mohamad Sabum, indications are that the party is moving towards a central position.

“If you look at the nominations, (vice-president) Husam Musa has garnered more support, and he is seen as a reformer,” says political analyst Wong Chin Huat, who has written about the progressive vs conservative divide.

Still, it won’t be smooth sailing for the progressives. It’s been reported that a blog has been set up to launch attacks against Husam, considered by political observers to be the chief of the Erdogans.

There was even an unsubstantiated claim by Dewan Ulama chief Datuk Mohamed Daud Iraqi last week alleging money politics by the Husam camp. The ulama chief has since apologized for making that statement. Still it shows that the battle will be fierce.

“If they go back to the old ways, they will be condemned to becoming a permanent opposition, and dragging the rest of Pakatan Rakyat with it,” says Wong.

PAS assemblies are something that usually only hardcore Islamists will pay attention to but this year, the whole country will be watching the muktamar with great interest and perhaps some trepidation.

The Edge

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