Pas, the quiet winner post-GE13

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A now impossible sight, Chinese Malaysian women in shorts gleefully holding up the Pas flag ahead of the 2013 general election - Photograph: kedaikopimerbok.blogspot.my

Pas has managed to convince the Malays that it is now a truly viable alternative to Umno – but whether this change will lead to more Malay votes for the party remains to be seen, writes Wan Luqman Noor.

Going into the 2013 general election, Pas was confident of securing more than the 23 parliament seats it had won in 2008. Non-Muslim support for PAS was the highest it had ever been thanks to Pas’ membership of Pakatan Rakyat.

Unfortunately, the night of 5 May 2013 turned out to be a bitter sweet affair for the party. Not only did Pas win two fewer parliament seats, it also lost six Kelantan state assembly seats, failed yet again to capture Terengganu, and most damning, lost control of Kedah.

The lacklustre leadership of Ustaz Azizan Razak as Menteri Besar of Kedah from 2008 to 2013 was a major reason that led to Pas’ massive defeat in Kedah. Evidently, some sections of Kedah Pas felt so unhappy that they tried and failed to oust him.

But this does not explain why Pas also lost state and parliamentary seats everywhere else – seats it had expected to retain or seize from the BN. The party’s many defeats must have jarred especially in contrast with Pakatan Rakyat bagging more votes than ever before. The DAP too performed well, winning an extra 10 parliament seats.

Pas, it would seem, was not accepted by a large majority of Malays whereas the DAP had the almost total support of the Chinese. The Islamic party may have concluded that the reason they performed so well in urban constituencies may have also been the reason they lost in rural ones. By joining Pakatan Rakyat, Pas had finally unlocked mass support from non-Muslims. But the flip-side was the fear among Malay voters that Pas could no longer be relied on to defend Malay-Muslim interests.

Shooting itself in the foot

In the aftermath of the 2008 general election, the one issue that confirmed the fear of many Malays was the unfortunate politicisation of the right to use the word Allah by non-Muslims. The public was made aware of the brewing conflict when the Roman Catholic Church filed a judicial review in February 2009 to challenge the Home Ministry’s decision to ban its use of the word Allah in its Herald Weekly publication. In December that year, the High Court decided that the Home Ministry’s ‘Allah’ ban was illegal, null and void.

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The controversy did not die a graceful death but was revived by a January 2010 decision by the High Court to suspend its initial ruling allowing the Herald to use the word Allah. Legally, the issue was laid to rest in October 2012 by the Court of Appeal, which sided with the government’s appeal to ban Herald from using the word ‘Allah’. [In June 2014, the Federal Court dismissed an application by the Church to appeal the decision.]

Politically, however, the issue was never going to be decided to so easily, much to the detriment of Pas. The party and its president, Abdul Hadi Awang, however, should be commended for supporting the right of non-Muslims to use the word Allah from the start.

Unfortunately, for Pas, it was on the wrong side of a clear majority of Malays when it came to this issue. A survey conducted by the University of Malaya Centre for Democracy and Elections (Umcedel) in December 2013 found that 77% of Malays believed that the word Allah could only be used by Muslims. Pas was right if judged based on principles but as an election strategy, the party had shot itself in the foot.

The hudud gambit

Belatedly, Pas realised this only after reflecting on their failings in the 2013 general election. The party was desperate to come up with a plan to recover the support of its core base of rural Malays. Less than a year after the general election, Pas declared its intention to push for the implementation of hudud laws, starting with Kelantan and eventually the rest of Malaysia.

This was the party’s gambit to win back the Malay support that had deserted it in 2013. A key part of the plan was to divorce Pas from the DAP and banish forever the toxic notion that the DAP was lording it over the Islamic party.

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The DAP was unsurprisingly vociferous in its opposition to any implementation of hudud laws while the PKR took its usual non-committal stance. Inevitably, the huge schism within Pakatan Rakyat destroyed the coalition. Pas must have calculated that the dissolution of Pakatan Rakyat was a price worth paying as the party did not stop pushing for hudud laws.

Umno was faced with the dilemma of supporting Pas in pushing for hudud laws and alienating its non-Muslim supporters or opposing it and turning off its own Muslim supporters. Even until now, Umno has only voiced support for the hudud laws to be debated in parliament but the party has apparently decided to be undecided by refusing to even schedule the debate. Some battles are simply better left unfought.

For Pas, however, a strategic victory was already achieved as a clear message had been sent to the Malays: the party had departed from its previous ‘folly’ of supporting non-Muslim use of the word Allah and had once again taken up the cause of Islamic/Malay supremacy by pushing for hudud laws. The DAP is once again seen by Pas supporters as the scheming ‘villain’ out to strip Malaysia of Islamic ideals while Umno is perceived as being less committed to Islam than Pas.

An alternative to Umno?

Going by Pas’ seemingly kamikaze statements on hudud laws and its condemnation of the DAP, it can be safely assumed that Pas no longer has an interest in courting non-Muslim voters. If so, we can then conclude that Pas is now singularly focused on retaining its hold on Kelantan and taking back Kedah and Terengganu.

Unlike winning seats in Selangor and other more ethnically diverse states, Pas will not have to worry about pleasing non-Muslim voters. Forming the state governments in the three northern and eastern states also has the extra benefit of making the party in sole command of the reins of power – unlike in Penang, Perak and Selangor, where Pas was part of a coalition that would never allow the Islamic party to act as it pleases.

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Do not be fooled by Pas’ statements that it is willing to work together with Umno. The Islamic party has always been clear that any cooperation with Umno would be limited strictly to matters in the interests of the Muslim community. Never has Pas declared that it would be open to supporting Umno to form and be part of an Umno-led government.

As for the dangers of three-cornered election fights resulting in certain Umno victories, Pas leaders, being seasoned political operators, must be acutely aware of this. As for Pas’ seat allocation arrangements, only the party and its negotiating partners will be privy to them. Most likely, any such arrangement will only be reached with Bersatu or the PKR, but not with Umno. If an Umno division chief is forced to let go of a seat to Pas, rebellion and self-sabotage would surely ensue.

It is of course debatable if Pas has truly succeeded in improving its Malay support. There is no doubt, however, that unlike the run-up to the 2013 general election, the perception that Pas is a party subservient to the DAP has miraculously transformed to that of a party which stands on its own and is beholden to no one.

As a result, Pas has managed to convince the Malays that it is now a truly viable alternative to Umno – an alternative that can be trusted to uphold the rights and interests of Malays against the Chinese, led by the DAP. Whether this change in perception is enough to result in more Malay votes for Pas will only be answered in 2018.

Wan Luqman Noor is co-founder of Noor Political Review. He has a deep interest in all things statistical, sustainable and political and recently participated in Aliran’s Young Writers Workshop which carried the theme “Youth aspirations and the coming general election”.

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