Mixed by-election results reveal challenges facing Malaysia’s PAS

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Both Malaysia’s ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) got shocks in by-elections in two constituencies left vacant by the death of Fadzil Noor, the PAS president, in June. UMNO was shown that all hopes of its credibility being restored were baseless; PAS found itself defeated in one of its safest seats.

The elections were seen as a crucial measure of the support for UMNO in its attempt to regain constituencies lost since the political turmoil of 1998. They were also an opportunity for PAS to gauge its credibility in post-Anwar Malaysia. Having lost its Pendang seat, and held Anak Bukit with a severely reduced majority, it appears that PAS must now get down to honest post-election analysis.

The results show that most analyses made solely against the backdrop of September 11 were mistaken. Early checks show that newly-registered young voters replaced the support PAS had lost. It is probable that those UMNO members who supported PAS in anger over the Anwar Ibrahim saga are now reverting to UMNO. Another possibility is that non-Muslims have this time voted overwhelmingly against PAS. While none of these conjectures can be proven, the consolation is that PAS managed to retain support despite having to face government rigging in the form of ‘postal votes’ and ‘phantom voters’, and round-the-clock media propaganda. But a large chunk of support for PAS was retained thanks to continued dissatisfaction with the country’s judiciary, a feeling that was revived when Anwar’s final appeal was rejected.

The polls were the first since Mahathir’s announcement in June that he would step down next year after 22 years in power, leaving his post to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the deputy president of UMNO. The results deny Mahathir the opportunity to retire in comfort, knowing that his long rule is yet to be appreciated by the people, in particular Malay Muslims.

He could not help making yet another dig at the Malay Muslims for supporting PAS. “It is not easy to convert fanatics. Even if PAS puts a tree stump as a candidate, these people will still vote for the party,” said Mahathir.

He has been spending more time lecturing Malays about their ‘lazy’ attitude than finding out the cause of their hatred. A few weeks ago, Mahathir got his cabinet to support plans to replace the teaching of certain subjects in the Malay language with English. He also forced higher learning institutions to slash their intake for religious courses, saying that these are not useful for career purposes. Such antics have cost the education system dearly and made the list of Malay grievances longer.

Many analysts had hoped that support for Mahathir was restored after September 11. Fence-sitters among the non-Muslim community were also said to have had no option but to oppose PAS, whose members were recently arrested and accused of everything from destroying non-Muslims’ places of worship to trying to overthrow the government by force.

The polls were the first since Abdul Hadi Awang, the deputy president, took over PAS’s leadership, prompting some observers to say that PAS was moving further from its moderate approach under the late Fadzil Noor, and had been taken over by a more ‘fundamentalist’ leader. As a chief minister, Abdul Hadi has been in the centre of the storm since his government proposed and passed a bill on implementation of Shari’ah laws for Terengganu state, saying that they would be carried out even if it means losing elections.

PAS’s plans to introduce Shari’ah laws were heavily exploited by the ruling regime through its non-Muslim coalition partners, hoping in the process to attract ‘moderate’ Muslims disenchanted with UMNO. Nonetheless, the recent elections have also given warning signals to PAS that elections alone will not in the long run benefit the party’s ultimate agenda of an Islamic government to replace the secular ideology of UMNO, especially when it participates in the kind of ‘democracy’ dictated by UMNO. Although Abdul Hadi’s insistence on implementing the Shari’ah is praiseworthy, the fact is that many issues surrounding the Shari’ah draft can prove disastrous not only for the party but also for the long-term prospects of an Islamic state in Malaysia.

These Shari’ah policies also show the sort of mistake most ‘Islamists’ initially make when in power, often at the cost of the larger interest of the Islamic movement. Such blunders have been committed in abundance in pseudo-Islamic countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan. While it is true that the emphasis on amputations and stoning is not the Muslims’ doing, ‘Islamists’ in these countries have to a certain extent misrepresented the true aim of Shari’ah. Similarly, the Shari’ah’s hudud bill, such as its provisions for non-Muslim or female testimonies, and the categorisation of rape under zina (adultery), have been met with strong protest from various groups. Reservations have even been expressed by PAS sympathisers.

Hitherto, PAS under Ustaz Abdul Hadi has displayed maturity in dealing with the criticisms by holding forums to hear public views. The fact, however, remains that such measures will not be enough to discredit the many myths surrounding Islam and politics. True, the argument that an Islamic state “cannot be implemented overnight” is a convenient excuse. Yet PAS may need to do much more homework before approaching any more bridges. After its defeat in Pendang, calls have emerged from within PAS to head in that direction. This is the greatest challenge facing Abdul Hadi and the PAS.

Mr. Abdar Rahman Koya is in Kuala Lumpur, Maylasia

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