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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 21 ― After the clergy class drove the so-called progressives out of PAS in the 2015 party election, the Islamist party’s new leadership has since revived calls for Shariah rule in Malaysia.
For almost three years, Malaysia's oldest Opposition party had seemingly made its ambition for the implementation of hudud laws in Kelantan ― which some believe is the reason behind its move to table a private member’s Bill in Parliament aiming at elevating the Shariah Courts' punitive powers ― as its sole preoccupation.
Such perception is strengthened by the leadership's seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards other crucial issues like rising costs of living and corruption.
In Parliament, PAS MPs are almost absent in all key policy debates. Apart from religious issues, observers say the new creed of PAS leaders has yet to make a mark intellectually or economically.
Political observers say these factors have given the view that PAS is a party with no capacity to tackle complex issues some truth.
The reasons for it, however, may not be as clear-cut as the widely held views that its rigid fixation with Islamic rule is mainly due to the theocratic background of the party's present leadership. It is more tactical than single-mindedness.
Datuk Mohamad Abu Bakar, a political analyst attached to Universiti Malaya and an expert in PAS affairs, said focusing its campaign on Shariah laws alone is helping PAS regain the trust of Malay supporters that voted against the party in the 2013 general elections, when the Islamist outfit was deemed to have abandoned its Islamic roots in a bid to woo non-Malay support.
But most importantly, capitalising on an issue that resonates deeply with a significant chunk of the rural Malay electorate gives the party greater leverage to force either ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) or Opposition pact Pakatan Harapan to make concessions in exchange for support, especially when the tactic is seen to be gaining traction, he said.
“By playing solo, PAS is able to have greater leverage on both BN and Pakatan Harapan simultaneously. So for the time being, if, say, it is able to garner support from Umno members as well for the rally, that is going to be a victory for the party,” Mohamad told Malay Mail Online.
“It is tactical. After all the election is still far away. If you are glued to some kind of strategy, it can backfire..but if they are glued to either BN or the Opposition, then PAS will [be] beholden to them to the extent that it is going to be on the receiving end,” he added.
Some observers have noted in the past that the demise of Pakatan Rakyat, the bloc comprised of PKR, DAP and PAS, has benefited the Islamists tremendously ― it helped rejuvenate the party as its alienated supporters returned to its fold.
A strong PAS had driven Umno, which is losing trust among the Malays due to unpopular government policies, to court the party. In a bold political move that defied Umno's secular background, prime minister and party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak had openly said that his government is supportive of the PAS campaign to increase the punitive powers of the Shariah Courts through Parliament.
Umno minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom also spoke at a mass rally organised by PAS here last Saturday to express support for president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang’s Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, also known as Act 355.
Analysts believe Umno is already profiting from the political manoeuvre ― its Islamic credential gets a boost in a country that has become increasingly conservative in religion.
PAS, on the other hand, knows that while being seen too close to Umno may irk some of its hardcore supporters, ultimately its strategy has succeeded in upholding Islam by forcing a concession by the government to elevate “the status” of the Shariah Courts.
“Whatever keeps the party relevant is the thing that it will push,” Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, explained to Malay Mail Online.
“It will survive, but only by falling back into extreme localism. It will survive through a dialectic of politicising religion and ‘religionising’ politics”.
And the minor victory will come at a cost.
Returning to its conservative cocoon will sabotage its own image as an Opposition party capable of helming federal power and could further polarise the country and Malays. Persistent religious politicking could also alienate and antagonise the the non-Muslims, making it harder for genuine integration.
But PAS seems comfortable with the idea for now.
“Those currently in power in PAS appear to be content with their hold in the northern states and to a lesser extent, the Malay heartlands,” Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.
PAS currently governs the east coast state of Kelantan, and Hadi had in a rally last month set his sights on the party reclaiming Terengganu and Kedah from BN, while becoming the leading party in PKR-led Selangor.
“I think they still harbour the vision of these places as shining beacons on the hills which could serve as pious examples for the rest,” he added.
But many of its former political allies believe with the right incentive, the Islamists could return to moderate politics. Some within PKR are still trying to win the party over. So is newly-formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia led by former nemesis Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
But Oh believes PAS is a party with its mind made up. Any idea that PAS could be convinced to come back and hold hands with the current federal Opposition bloc, Pakatan Harapan, is delusional, he said.
Hadi had said, amid verbal bullet exchanges with some of Pakatan Harapan leaders, that the party will remain with the third bloc it leads, Gagasan Sejahtera.
Meanwhile, PAS leaders have been adamant that it will never ever work with former ally DAP, nor its splinter Parti Amanah Negara.
The party is also expected to review its relationship with PKR at its muktamar, or annual congress, in April. This will decide whether or not PAS would pull out of the Selangor government, a move that could spark yet another political crisis in the politically shaky state.
All factors considered, a clash with the federal Opposition in the 14th general election seems inevitable. No political schmoozing could change that, Oh said. Until there is a change in leadership, which may not happen anytime soon, PAS will likely remain a political one-trick pony, he said.
“Only one issue at the moment as the conservatives and dogmatic dominate the party at the present,” he said.