KUANTAN, June 24 — Although it was election year, the PAS muktamar barely saw any competition as most of the party’s top posts were not contested.
Instead, the Islamist party’s annual congress this year coalesced around the necessity of working with erstwhile adversary Umno for the 15th general election due only in four years.
Here is what Malay Mail observed at PAS’ 65th muktamar, a year after the 14th general election:
Age, geographical divide on cooperation with Umno
The ones who found it easiest to accept PAS’ cooperation with Umno was the Youth wing, likely because many of its members were not yet born or were too young to remember the bitterness that marked Umno-PAS relations that reached acrimonious levels in the 1970s and 1980s.
For party veterans who recalled facing the hatred from Umno supporters whenever they went down on the ground to Umno strongholds in those bad old days, they had lingering misgivings and resentments.
A PAS grassroots member who only wished to be known as Amrin, 53, said he recalled fierce rivalries among the two parties throughout the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in his home state of Terengganu.
“Although we agree to the cooperation, many still remember how Umno treated us back in Terengganu, from denying oil royalties and even not helping state seats held by PAS.
“The cooperation has worked so far in Selangor and Pahang as we see in the recent by-elections. However, it will take some time for people in Terengganu to open their doors for Umno,’’ he said.
Newly minted PAS vice-president Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar also admitted to dissenting voices to the union, particularly in Terengganu and the northern state, but he assured members that a difference of opinion could help strengthen the party.
During the party’s Dewan Ulama debate, Kelantan delegate Ishak Hassan had insisted that Umno ought to repent of its past actions towards the Islamic party before it can be fully trusted again.
Others, while agreeing to the cooperation in principle, urged the leadership to impose some basic guidelines and limitations, so as to prevent a blurring of party lines that could be detrimental to PAS.
Whatever the case, the top leadership repeatedly made it clear that in addition to the praiseworthy aim of uniting the community of Muslim believers in the country, the cooperation between PAS and Umno will also prevent the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) from gaining the upper hand.
Using the traditional spectres of liberalism, homosexuality and the ultimate bogeyman that is DAP, PAS leaders managed to quell concerns about allying with Umno, harping on the greater fear that a continued PH government will spell the inevitable demise of Islam’s sovereignty in Malaysia.
MCA skipped PAS muktamar
With the exception of the focus on the PAS-Umno cooperation, this year’s muktamar was quite placid in contrast to previous iterations on the eve of general elections.
Despite the perception that PAS has made a great U-turn with regards to Umno, in other respects, it still remains surprisingly consistent. Mindful of the fact that non-Muslims’ voting power is nothing to be trivialised, its leaders have continuously sought to reassure those communities that there is nothing to fear if PAS takes the reins of government.
This was evident in the invites it sent out to non-Muslim parties, including MIC, MCA, Parti Cinta Malaysia (PCM) and others, to attend the first day of the muktamar. This was positively received by some, with MIC president Tan Sri SA Vigneswaran and PCM deputy president Huan Cheng Guan attending the muktamar’s first day.
The once-dominant Chinese party MCA, however, skipped the PAS congress.
PAS Dewan Ulama chief Nik Muhd Zawawi Salleh said the party has always opened its doors to work with other political parties, as long as it does not go against Islamic law.
“That is the politics that we try to bring, a politics of Islam based on peace and mutual cooperation,’’ he said.
Zawawi also claimed that since the announcement of the political cooperation between PAS and Umno, even parties in Sabah and Sarawak have been attracted to the coalition.
“They have begun talking to us and we are open to see what they have to say, but It is normal for parties in Sabah and Sarawak to do this as they are attracted to parties that are strong,’’ he said.
Yet it is clear PAS has a long way to go in winning the confidence of non-Muslims, particularly the Chinese community that has largely been won over by DAP in recent years. Even MCA, whose support has eroded among its constituents since 2008 onwards, did not send a representative to the muktamar, possibly motivated by the backlash it may face for doing so after years of touting its ideological opposition to PAS.
Moving from strength to strength
Considering that Barisan Nasional (BN) obtained 4,080,797 votes and PAS obtained 2,051,188 votes respectively in the last general election, the idea of a political cooperation between the two poses a very real threat to a PH government (which won 5,781,600 votes in total) beset by various internal problems and a decrease in confidence from the same electorate that put them into office.
Key to this is the increased Malay electoral insecurity. The slowness and occasional ineptitude of PH in handling Islamic-related affairs, combined with the perceived growing political power of some non-Muslims deemed hostile to the faith, has made for fertile grounds that PAS has taken advantage of.
Throughout the muktamar, PAS leaders reminded delegates that the party’s cooperation with Umno was for the sake of Islam.
What the leadership deliberately avoided speaking of at this stage was the division of parliamentary and state assembly seats between PAS and Umno. This is not factoring in the seats in which PAS’ allies, both existing and potential, will want to contest in.
If the party does not handle this factor as confidently as it has in pushing for cooperation with Umno, it could well become a sore sticking point that may threaten the alliance.
Additionally, BN and Umno’s loss of power in the 14th general election has been devastating for its morale. Although it has regained some of its former confidence in the year since, the once-vaunted main BN party has been greatly diminished by mass defections to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Bersatu.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Umno has been the more enthusiastic of the two when it came to supporting the cooperation with PAS. Yet this could work in PAS’ favour, given that the party’s devoted supporters and electoral base were largely unaffected by the outcome of the 14th general election.
The muktamar simply reinforced this devotion in both party and leaders, as indicated by the top posts remaining uncontested.
If anything, Umno had better tread with caution, lest they find themselves eventually swallowed up by the green tide.