Change for PAS or PAS for change?
Bridget Welsh | Jun 7, 09 4:40pm
In Selangor’s touted Islamic city of Shah Alam, PAS held its important 55th Muktamar and elected its new crop of leaders, who turned out to be overwhelmingly incumbents.
Media reports have described the results as reflecting a tension between two camps in the party – the conservative ulama-led Islamists and the progressive, more liberal professionals, labeled the Erdogans.
They have portrayed the contests, especially the competitive deputy vice-presidency, as hinging on the party’s willingness to engage in dialogue and potential partnership with parties outside of the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat, notably Umno, and tied this to the viability of the opposition alliance as a whole.
A potential PAS alliance with Umno would forge a Muslim Malay majority and exclude non-Malays, who have been portrayed by some in favour of this alliance as gaining too much ground from the March 2008 polls and would irrevocably split the opposition alliance.
These characterisations of the dynamics in PAS are based on two simplistic assumptions that there is a clear continuum between conservatives and liberals within the party, and racial politics dominate the motivation of its members.
Both assumptions are flawed. As such, the framing of dynamics within PAS has missed its mark. It is no wonder the results are being described as “mixed”, because the lens to understand current party dynamics is inherently blurred. Refocusing is needed.
Diversity not division
The results of the PAS polls should be seen in their totality, not just for particular contests. Overall, the number of ulama and ‘conservatives’ elected into positions of power dropped.
The new line-up in PAS – including the women, ulama and youth wings, are more diverse than before, and include greater number of professionals and ulama from a variety of backgrounds. The main point to take away from the results is the inclusiveness of greater diversity of voices within the party.
The labels of ulama and professionals are misleading. There is a tendency to treat all respective ulama and all professionals as the same, when in fact a closer look shows that individual political positions within PAS and the two ‘camps’ are fluid.
Many ulama are more moderate than some professionals and many professionals are more conservative than some ulama. Overall, the ulama in the central committee, for example, are much more open than those in ulama council.
PAS is increasingly becoming an umbrella party that represents the diversity of Malays in Malaysia as a whole. The tendency to compartmentalise the leadership and party delegates into camps misses the real picture of the dynamics within the party.
More important, labels and outlooks are changing within PAS. Consider the victor in the deputy presidency race, Nasharuddin Mat Isa. Only four years ago, when he was elected in 2005, he was touted as the leader of the ‘progressives’. Today, he was labeled as the defender of the ulama, the voice of conservatism.
Nasharuddin’s political identity remains unclear, as it is being shaped by forces within the party and the rapidly changing political environment in Malaysia rather than driven by a fixed outlook.
He represents the position of many leaders within PAS who are politicians, and are inherently political animals rather than ideologues. As political animals, they operate through persuasion and interests, rather than principles and with fixed ideological positions.
New and old points of contention
The political environment has changed fundamentally from when the ulama-progressive division was stamped on the party in 2000.
At that time, the point of contention was whether to impose an Islamic state top-down through formal transformation of political structures such as the introduction of syariah law or whether to adopt a more inclusive strategy of multi-ethnic cooperation and with an emphasis on broader Islamic principles of justice and anti-corruption.
At issue were the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims to practice their religions as they see fit rather than the interpretation of a few religious scholars, many of whom have limited exposure to non-Muslims and have been shaped by parochial outlooks of rural life.
Implicitly, another dimension involved the willingness of PAS leaders to respect alternative views of governance and cooperate with other political parties. The issue of Islamic state became the main obstacle for Barisan Alternatif, and ultimately the victory of the ‘ulama’ in 2001 in favour of introducing formal measures, particularly in the state of Terengganu, stymied opposition cooperation.
Conditions for revitalising inter-opposition cooperation had been in play for at least two years before the last general election in 2008, as cooperation through movements such as Bersih had forged relations, and dialogue had deepened.
PAS leaders from 2004 onwards, after their decisive loss, had seemed to slowly accept the principle of multi-ethnic cooperation and had put the Islamic state on the back burner. The victory of Nasharuddin in the party polls of 2005 signaled the move toward more pragmatic politics and an acceptance of the political reality that PAS cannot hold national political power without the support of non-Malays.
The creation of the non-Muslim support group within PAS after two years of negotiation with the party represented an embrace of the non-Malay community, as least symbolically.
With March 2008, a new reality set in. PAS was catapulted to power in three state governments, one on the backs of a majority of non-Malays in Perak.
At the same time, it is third fiddle in terms of numbers in Parliament within the national opposition, a position that has fed insecurities within the party and underscores one reason for some of its leaders in reaching out to Umno.
The other is that the 2008 polls have been portrayed as a victory for the non-Malays (another misrepresentation) which has further fed insecurities in PAS, as issues of Malay identity and Malay rights – now closely tied to Muslim rights – has come to the fore.
The main contests have moved from the Islamic state and multi-ethnic acceptance to a perceived protection of Malay/Muslim rights and the position of the party nationally.
Insecurity lies at the roots of discussion with Umno and shapes the relationship with its partners in Pakatan Rakyat. It is in this context that the label Erdogans from Turkey’s Islamic party has emerged, pasted on those who want cooperation within Pakatan and are willing to treat the opposition parties equally.
Everyone else is grouped in the ‘ulama’ camp, which is in fact full of diverse views and different priorities that range from revitalising the Islamic state to assuring that PAS is the opposition prime minister.
In simplifying the camps into a polarised ulama-Erdogan continuum, the diversity of issues contested within PAS are muddied and ineffectively lumped together.
The reality is that the ideological landscape within the party is complex and complicated, and simplifying it forces the debate into polarised positions that could very well undermine the opposition as a result of misinterpretation and exacerbate divisions within PAS.
Deciphering the results
If ideology is more complex than the ulama-Erdogan dichotomy, what then explains the party poll results? It’s politics – not ideology.
The first factor is incumbency. From the main central committee to the women’s wing leadership, incumbency is the main consistent feature in the results. The party delegates were resistant to giving new positions to new leaders.
The only major exception is Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, who has emerged as the leader in PAS that can genuinely bring the Islamic party out of its parochial leadership and engage non-Malays.
The fact that this engineer, who has serendipitously risen to the national stage, received the highest votes in the central committee speaks to both his celebrity status and what he represents for those interested in national ambitions for the party. This aside, incumbency remains the most powerful political force within PAS.
Closely tied to the issue of incumbency is the fact that change does not come quickly in PAS. The party’s mantra of working by consensus (even when consensus does not really exist) – and the complicated fact that all think they are “right” in their missions for God which entrenches stubbornness – underpin slow change within the party.
PAS delegates hate their party laundry being washed in public, preferring internal resolutions to issues. As such, the support of incumbents, including Nasharuddin and established figures such as Mahfuz Omar, point to greater acceptance of what is known rather than the unknown, an attempt to keep differences outside of public purview.
The political culture of slow change and closure is further reinforced by the culture of follow the leader, which is tied to a deep-seated trust in party leaders – almost blind loyalty – among many delegates who view their leaders on a mission for their religion.
Political culture is shaped by another dimension, generational dynamics. Most of the delegates are in the 40s, overwhelmingly male. Most entered politics from the late 1980s, when the party transformed from a grassroots rural base to a more urban professional composition. It also was a time when serious religious conservatism set in. These mixed tendencies are reflected in the results.
Many of the delegates reflect the outlooks of when they entered the party and the socialisation of the party during these years. At the same time, there is noticeable resistance of the older leaders in the party to give up power.
The reality is that many older members and leaders feel more comfortable with their chosen representative, Nasharuddin, than an ‘upstart’ such as Husam Musa. A generational conflict is also played out over links to Pakatan leader Anwar Ibrahim, possible relations with Umno and how the party should relate with non-Malays. Indeed in PAS, generational differences are sharper than ideological labeling.
Return of Terengganu hegemony
The fourth factor is geography.
The PAS election results represent a return of Terengganu hegemony in the party. This pattern was evident after 1999 through to 2004. Now, every major organ in the party is led by someone from or raised – new Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan is Pahang-born – in Terengganu.
The fact that Terengganu leaders do not hold major positions at the state level and nationally has allowed them to focus on defining and quietly campaigning early for the party contest.
Every state was divided in its votes at the party polls – except Terengganu – and as such, it has emerged in a position of power. This will create tensions long-term and highlights the complexity of different outlooks in the party. The political effectiveness of Terengganu members and leaders in mobilising supporters should not be underestimated.
Another political aspect that was so effectively harnessed was the issue of personality. Perhaps more than earlier contexts and as a result of the complexity of the issues, character became more important in this contest, superseding issues such as work for the party.
For example, all the candidates for the deputy presidency were slandered in a vicious behind-the-scene campaign. Personal jealousies also came to the fore, as some delegates reflected insecurities about threats to their own positions especially in the state of Kelantan.
Pride on the part of candidates kept people in contests, even when it was well-known that splits in votes would occur. The fact that personal interests were more important than the ideas that candidates were touted to represent show perhaps more than anything that the ideological divisions in PAS are not as clear-cut as they have been portrayed.
Treating the results as a return of ‘ulama’ rule is a mistake. The results are tied to political changes within the party and politicking.
The deputy presidency, for example, was won through more effective campaigning that tied to the political culture in the party and generational transformations.
The return of the women’s chief showed the power of incumbency. The ulama council shows the entrenched hold of older leaders onto power. The new blood in the women and youth wings, by contrast, showed generational pressures and transformations.
Complexity, diversity and a degree of political insecurity reigned in the PAS polls, not ideology or externally imposed labels.
Part 2 tomorrow
DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor in Southeast Asian studies at John Hopkins University-SAIS, Washington DC. She is an observer at the PAS muktamar. The article above is first of a three-part series. The other two parts will appear in Malaysiakini in the coming days.