Making sense of the PAS election: What’s at stake?

The faultlines in PAS election this Thursday (4th June) are very stark. Incumbent President Hadi Awang had asked members to choose between his loyalists and what his camp dubbed as “DAP sympathisers”, and in reply, former Perak Menteri Besar, Nizar Jamaluddin had said in jest that the choice was actually between DAP sympathisers and UMNO puppets.

Last Saturday, I was speaking at a forum with Nik Omar Nik Aziz, the eldest son of Tok Guru Nik Aziz. It just struck me that even within the family of the former PAS Spiritual Leader there are some different views; Nik Abduh claimed that his father was never against working with UMNO while Nik Omar held a contrasting view.

The lines are drawn between those who aspire to win Putrajaya and those who only want to keep Kota Bharu; between those who are prepared to work with other opposition parties to topple an already corrupt and monolithic UMNO in the next general election for broader reforms and those who want to work with UMNO for immediate implementation of hudud, and between those who see Malaysia as a multiethnic/multireligious project and those who think of Malaysia as a single ethnic/religious entity.

The party poll is unlikely to end the conflict as it is too deep-seated, at least dating back to events unfolded in 1998. This Thursday could be a fresh beginning for PAS, for better or worse.

The birth of PAS

PAS was formed in 1951 by the ulama group in UMNO which included both the grandfather and father of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Most UMNO members severed ties with PAS in 1954 when UMNO banned dual membership in anticipation of the first federal election in July 1955 which saw UMNO winning 51 out of 52 seats, and PAS winning the only remaining seat.

The first post-independent general election in 1959 was a shocker to UMNO with PAS winning the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu. UMNO took Terengganu back to its fold via crossovers of PAS reps in 1961. It was not until 1999 that PAS regained Terengganu.

The Kelantan state power, which lasted until the 1977 crisis, was far more important to PAS. The leader in Kelantan Dato’ Asri Muda was effectively the most powerful person in PAS 1959 until 1982 when he was deposed in a party coup though he only became party president officially in 1971. Throughout Asri’s leadership, PAS competed with UMNO on which party was more effective as Malay champion.

PAS became UMNO’s coalition partner in 1973 and joined the expanded ruling coalition Barisan Nasional in 1974 when it was launched just before the general election. PAS was sacked from Barisan Nasional in November 1977 after the party objected to a Parliamentary bill to impose emergency rule in Kelantan. It was triggered by Federal Government exploiting a protracted leadership crisis in Kelantan with PAS state assemblymen having voted a no-confidence vote against Menteri Besar Mohamad Nasir, who received tacit support from UMNO. PAS lost Kelantan in the subsequent state election in March 1978. In other words, PAS was cheated by UMNO.

With PAS working with UMNO in the 1970s, there was a vacuum of leadership among the Malays especially among the younger generation. Anwar Ibrahim and leaders from Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) were seen as the alternatives to UMNO.

Anwar campaigned for PAS in the 1978 general election and was offered the leadership of PAS by Asri on several occasions. But he joined UMNO a week before the April 1982 general election and became the face of Islam for UMNO for sixteen years until he was sacked in September 1998.

In October 1982, in a response to UMNO which has adopted the Islamic façade with Anwar and in the attempt to rejuvenise the party, the “young Turks” of PAS forced Asri Muda out of the presidency at the (non-election year) Muktamar. Eventually, half of PAS’ senior leadership was sacked in January 1983 by the new leadership including four out of its five MPs, leaving Nik Aziz as its sole MP nationally.

In order to differentiate the new leadership from the previous one, “kepimpinan ulama” (leadership by religious scholars) became the theme. What the label actually means has been contested ever since.

Between 1982 and 1998, while PAS was rejuvenated, it was a relatively small opposition party with a base concentrating in the northern Malay-belt states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis. The leadership consists of religious scholars and activists while the membership was formed by mostly independent farmers and traders who either support PAS for Kelantanese regional identity vis-à-vis the federal government or genuinely wanting to see a more pious and religious society. They were not thinking about winning federal power as it was unimaginable anyway.

Reformasi’s idealism for PAS

The sacking of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 changed PAS permanently. A year after the fateful September, PAS claimed that its membership almost doubled from 450,000 to 800,000. Many who joined were nouveau riche and professionals of the New Economic Policy generation and geographically concentrating in the west coast cities. They hated Dr. Mahathir and UMNO but probably didn’t trust Anwar either hence PAS.

In the 1999 general election, with the massive Malay swing against UMNO, PAS won 27 parliamentary seats as well as the state government of Terengganu in addition to the Kelantan government which it held since 1990.

With the influx of new members and the emergence of new leaders not trained as religious scholars, the talk of ulama versus professionals became the theme of each party election since reformasi. In essence, it is not so much of the educational background of a person but the political outlook.

President Fadzil Noor was eager to push PAS to move beyond its base and reach out to the wider Malay audience, as well as the non-Malay voters. In his words, PAS had to “mainstream” itself.

It’s the battle between the purists and the mainstreamers.

The untimely demise of Fadzil Noor in June 2002 resulted in Hadi Awang taking over the helm and allowing the party to fall back to its default position of securing the base with a hardline programme. PAS lost badly in the 2004 general election, including losing the Terengganu government.

Between 2004 and 2008, the hardliners were tamed after the massive loses and moderate elements were able to steer the party in the directions of the now diminished Partai Keadilan Sejahtera of Indonesia and the AK Party of Turkey, hence the term the “Erdogans”.

Return of the conservatives

The 2008 tsunami was a great shock. PAS increased its seats from 6 in 2004 to 23 in 2008 but many in the conservative wing were unhappy because Parti Keadilan Rakyat won 31 while DAP had 28. In several instances when UMNO were attempting to form “Unity Government” with PAS at state and federal levels some were keen.

With UMNO and its associates and press pushing for the ‘race, religion and royalty’ 3R identity politics agenda, many in PAS were wary of non-racial new politics promoted by others in Pakatan.

Apart from the older purists and the mainstreamers, a new generation of young Turks who grew up entirely in the milieu of the 1982 rejuvenation has come of age. Some of them are indeed children of leaders. The rather hardline 1982 batch schooled their political offspring entirely in a closed PAS political environment from kindergarten to university with very little interactions with the wider society. The form the new hardline group in this current battle.

The lines are stark and unlikely to end with the election. The outcome of the election would have huge implications for PAS, Pakatan Rakyat and Malaysia. Realignment of forces may be the next on the cards.

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