PAS’s Penanti tantrum revisited

For a while there, PAS nearly gave Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) a scare for the upcoming Penanti by-election — the party’s Permatang Pauh division wanted the seat for itself. In fact, newly elected Penang PAS Youth chief Yusni Mat Tiah even told the press there was the possibility that a PAS candidate could run as an independent.

This was despite none other than PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat previously warning the party to leave Penanti to PKR. A day later, on 6 May 2009, party election director Datuk Mustafa Ali said that PAS would not contest in Penanti “in the spirit of the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition”. A week later, Penang PAS deputy chief Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that the party would fully back Dr Mansor Othman, PKR’s candidate.

Crisis averted — or was it really? Some observers argue that the squabble over Penanti was symptomatic of escalating internal conflict between PAS’s veteran ulama and its “liberals”. The Permatang Pauh PAS division was apparently “fighting back against young liberals” in order to clip PKR adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s wings. The “young liberals” are also known as the PAS professionals — aligned with Anwar; opposed to a unity government with the Barisan Nasional (BN); and protected by Nik Aziz.

PAS central working committee member and Kuala Selangor Member of Parliament (MP) Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, however, denies this.

“What happened in Penanti was not a revolt against Tok Guru (Nik Aziz)’s leadership. It was completely unrelated,” he tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

DAP MP for Bukit Bendera Liew Chin Tong agrees. He tells The Nut Graph: “In by-elections, people will use this opportunity to project what they feel should be their party’s image.

“It’s like what DAP did in the Bukit Selambau by-election also, when we said to PKR initially that we wanted to contest.”

PAS treasure Dr Hatta Ramli echoes this sentiment. “The same PAS division also tried to stretch its luck in the 2008 Permatang Pauh by-election,” he tells The Nut Graph.

In a phone interview, he says, “This is quite usual for Penang. It has nothing to do with the issue of the pro- or anti-unity government factions within PAS fighting.”

Sidelined in Penang?

But if that is the case, why is it usual for PAS’s Penang divisions to express such disgruntlement in the first place?

PAS central working committee member and Kota Raja MP Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud tells The Nut Graph: “What happened in Penanti was an expression of dissatisfaction by the PAS grassroots towards PKR.

“From the grassroots’ feedback I’ve gathered, it appears as though they were unhappy with the performance of the previous PKR assembly[person] (Mohammad Fairus Khairuddin).”

Siti Mariah also says some of the grassroots felt that PAS was being sidelined in the Penang PR government.

“So they were just using this opportunity to express themselves. But now that they’ve expressed themselves, the matter is settled,” she says. “The issue was escalated to Anwar and the Penang government leadership, and they’ve taken these grievances into account.”

Hatta, however, disagrees that PAS in Penang has any reason to gripe. “The fact is that PAS only has one seat in Penang. Look at Kedah — the DAP only has one state seat and it has not been given any exco positions. In Kelantan, PKR only has one state seat and it also does not have any exco positions,” he explains.

“The fact is, PAS members are very much involved at the local authority level in Penang, in the mosques and village security and development committees.”

The larger struggle

So is PAS’s Penanti tantrum nothing more than a storm in a teacup? Umno Youth chief and Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin thinks so.

“It’s always tough to say with PAS — they play so many games. I’m quite accustomed to PAS’s public spats,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Perhaps Khairy is right. PAS leaders and supporters have been known to dissent quite furiously and openly over a variety of issues, and yet appear to close ranks in a short space of time.

Siti Mariah herself says, “PAS’s grassroots are not like Umno’s. We always think of what’s best for the larger struggle, and it may appear as though there are divisive polemics within the party, but all sides really have the best of intentions.”

While that may be true, it does not actually answer the question of whether PAS’s Penanti episode represents an escalating struggle between the party’s veteran ulama and the “liberal” professionals.

It could be that PAS’s Penanti spat really was part of the ulama-progressive conflict, and that the anti-progressive camp merely decided to cede defeat for strategic reasons. In other words, why squabble during a relatively low-stakes by-election when the real battle is going to be fought during the party’s upcoming elections? By extension, why should PAS turn Penanti into a battlefield when it is the outcome of its 55th muktamar which determines the future of the pro-Umno or pro-PR factions?

And on this score, the pro-PR camp has an edge over the pro-Umno camp.

Says the DAP’s Liew: “PAS knows that they can form a unity government with the Umno-led BN any day. But they also know that Umno will eat them up the next day. They’ve experienced this before; they know it.”

But as Siti Mariah says, “We must wait and see. This is politics — anything can happen.”

The Nut Graph

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