This week, PAS, Malaysia’s second largest political party, will choose its president for the first time in more than 25 years, a decision with far-reaching impact on the country’s politics.
On the surface, PAS members will be voting for either one of two Muslim scholars with similar surnames.
But beneath their Islamist credentials, the incumbent Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and his challenger Ahmad Awang, could not be any more different about their visions for PAS’s future and how the party fits in a multi-religious society.
Ahmad has gone on record vowing to repair ties with Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition partners, PKR and DAP, which have worsened under Hadi.
Hadi had even alluded to this difference. In statement reported by PAS organ Harakahdaily, Hadi said members could choose leaders who were pro-DAP or no – a jab at members and leaders who enjoyed good ties with the secular, social democrat party.
Hadi has been unchallenged for 12 years. Before him was Datuk Fadzil Noor, who was president from 1989 to 2002.
Hadi is not alone in his belligerence towards DAP and PKR. Close to 30 posts, including deputy and vice-president, will be contested by personalities who share Hadi’s views. These include Datuk Mohd Amar Abdullah, Mokhtar Senik and Nasruddin Hassan.
Such resentment came out in the open over DAP’s opposition to the Kelantan government’s shariah criminal law, and with PKR over the choice of candidate to replace former Selangor menteri besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim last year.
Collectively, they believe that PAS should not water down its puritan Islamist agenda, such as enforcing Shariah criminal law or hudud, even if it risks losing non-Muslim support and even if it violated the Federal Constitution.
Ahmad, who is a former Perak PAS commissioner and a staunch supporter of collaboration with PR, has emerged as the face of the faction that wants PAS to modulate its approach to suit Malaysia’s plural society and have better ties with its PR partners.
This group includes personalities such as the current deputy president Mohamad Sabu, Datuk Husam Musa and Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa.
If Hadi and like-minded leaders take over the party, it will likely lead to three more years of policy paralysis and feuds within PR. This would cripple PR’s ability to provide a unified, alternative front to the Barisan Nasional in the 14th general election, due by early 2018.
A takeover by Hadi’s faction could also see the party leaving the coalition, in which case, it could contest against its former partners in future elections.
As political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan said, the party elections would decide whether they wanted a party that could be a driving force within a national coalition, or a small party which could only get support in the kampung.
“The synergy in PAS and PR has benefitted them both equally and any separation would be equally disastrous for both,” said Wan Saiful of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). – June 2, 2015.