The recent muktamar (general assembly) of the Malaysian Islamist opposition — Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) — has clearly set out the future direction of the party.
The strong signal sent by the party’s grassroots that it should end its working relationship with Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has been read by many observers of Malaysian politics as a clear signal that PAS plans to work instead with the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) in the upcoming general election.
However, this ignores the virulently anti-Umno sentiments that have been consistently advocated by PAS members during the proceedings of the muktamar. In fact, it is likely that the party will try to win the northern states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah, while trying to play kingmaker at the next Malaysian general election.
Much like the annual assemblies prior to 2008, this year’s PAS meeting, which ran from April 29 to May 1, was largely uneventful — except for a fierce thunderstorm — with leaders discussing rudimentary matters such as ways to strengthen the party, the development of new party institutions, and the caderisation process in the party.
Most positions within the party — including those of president, deputy president, the heads of the religious scholars’ wing and the women’s wing — were not contested.
The newly minted youth chief, Khalil Hadi, son of PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, assumed his position without contest.
The contest for the three vice-president spots was also insignificant, with the incumbents Idris Ahmad, PAS Selangor commissioner Iskandar Samad and Kelantan deputy chief minister Nik Amar Abdullah successfully defending their positions.
Despite earlier murmurs of a split between Mr Hadi and his deputy, Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, the two seem to have put their differences aside. Unlike the last two assemblies, which were marred by intense contests between different factions in the party, members were united and overwhelmingly supported its leadership this time.
It was also clear from the number of delegates attending the event that the departure of some of its key leaders to form the Parti Amanah Nasional (Amanah) has not impacted PAS in any significant way.
A key issue during the meeting was the party’s relations with PKR, the sole member of the opposition alliance — Pakatan Harapan — that continues to have a working relationship with PAS.
PAS Youth and the all-powerful PAS clerics’ wing moved a motion to end the party’s alliance with PKR.
In speeches made by the party’s grassroots leaders, many of them expressed support for this move, with some suggesting explicitly that the party should withdraw its support for the current PKR-led Selangor state government.
A PAS Youth delegate from Shah Alam cited a concert by American singer Selena Gomez in Shah Alam last year, opposed by the PAS because of Ms Gomez’s so-called sexy attire, as a reason to sever ties with PKR.
And in a jibe aimed at Selangor Chief Minister Azmin Ali, PAS VP Idris Ahmad joked that Mr Salehuddin Nasir, PAS’ divisional leader in Gombak (Azmin’s parliamentary seat), will need to make a bigger donation to the party as he will be the incoming parliamentarian for Gombak, insinuating that PAS might contest the seat in the upcoming election.
It was clear from the speech of Mr Nik Amar that the Majlis Syura Ulama, the party’s highest legislative body, would approve the motion for PAS to end its alliance with PKR. This would pave the way for PAS to exist as a third force within Malaysian politics.
In his closing speech, Mr Hadi confirmed that PAS would form a so-called third bloc called Gagasan Sejahtera, comprising other smaller Malay parties.
Yet while most attacks during the meeting were targeted at PKR, Amanah and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), delegates were equally virulent in their attacks against the ruling Umno party.
The party’s women wing called for corruption in the country to cease, suggested the trimming down of allowances for the prime minister, his deputy and other ministers in the cabinet, and chastised Prime Minister Najib Razak’s management of the country’s ailing economy.
Clearly, the party seems to be adopting a contradictory stance in its political positioning within Malaysian politics.
In setting its goal for the upcoming 14th Malaysian general election, PAS stated that it aims to capture as many as 40 parliamentary seats and five state governments — namely Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Pahang and Selangor.
This seems more like political bravado, aimed at intimidating the other opposition parties.
In my conversations with PAS leaders, they suggested that the party will be focusing on capturing the three northern Malay states and enough parliamentary seats to play the role of kingmaker in a hung Parliament.
To secure its aim, PAS is likely to form a tacit agreement with Umno in the states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, where Umno might place weaker candidates at the state level in return for PAS conceding parliamentary seats elsewhere to Umno.
Nonetheless, PAS will not form an official alliance with Umno to avoid a severe backlash from the party’s grassroots.
This scenario would be a political disaster for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Not only will the coalition suffer in a three-way contest, these parties will be deprived of access to PAS’ grassroots network, which forms the backbone of the opposition election machinery. Many analyses of the muktamar suggested that Mr Hadi has emerged as the biggest winner.
But perhaps it is Mr Najib who will emerge an even bigger winner than him.
The Umno president can be assured of going into the next election knowing that the opposition is too divided to form a significant threat to Umno’s continued political domination.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman is assistant professor and coordinator of the Malaysia Programme in S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.