A Malaysian Political Revolution

In what could well be the start of a political revolution, Malaysia's rural-based opposition Islamic party underwent a sudden and dramatic transformation over last weekend, electing secular leaders and abandoning its traditional call to convert the country into an Islamic state.

In its new secular guise, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has the potential to deliver a real challenge to the sclerotic United Malays National Organisation in elections expected late this year or early the next, say analysts from both the government and opposition camps. PAS is the largest party in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's coalition but its resolve to impose Islamic law has often been seen as a serious barrier to its bid to win over non-Muslims, who make up nearly half of the population.

The implications for Malaysian politics are profound. Urban and moderate Malays have turned away from PAS because of its harsh advocacy of religious law. A reformed PAS, political analysts say in Malaysia, could provide a new refuge for disaffected ethnic Malays who have long been turned off by UMNO's endemic corruption but are still not willing to opt for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the urban, largely Malay People's Justice Party headed by Anwar, who remains a polarizing figure laboring under his own problems from a long-running sexual perversion trial and a new film purporting to show him cavorting with a Chinese prostitute. He also suffers in some eyes from his perceived ties, rightly or wrongly, to western governments, in particular the US.

PAS's new face could present a serious problem for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and UMNO. If Sarawak state elections earlier this year are any indication, the Chinese, who make up about 25 percent of the population, have abandoned the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, made up of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Some UMNO strategists have advocated simply abandoning support from the other major ethnic groups and counting on the party to take all of the ethnic Malay votes, with perhaps a smattering of other ethnic groups to push it over the top. That is because the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second party in the Barisan, is nearly moribund from party infighting and allegations of corruption. Altough the Malaysian Indian Congress has staged somewhat of a comeback from its disastrous perfomrance in 2008 national elections, it is not enough to give the Barisan any kind of clean win, let alolne regain its historical two-thirds hold on the Parliament,

Malays make up an estimated 52 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook. If a significant number of ethnic Malays were to abandon UMNO for PAS, any hope of winning with an all-Malay strategy is out the window.

PAS over the weekend at its annual conclave elected a secular slate that replaces many of its former religious leaders in a bid to widen its public appeal and mesh more effectively with the two other parties that make up the opposition, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Anwar's PKR. Only six of the 18 elected central committee members are now considered religious leaders. The remainder are individuals that seem to reflect the majority Malay middle and working classes that PAS has lately begun to court. In particular Husam Musa, who has pushed to moderate the PAS stance on a theocratic state, won one of the three vice-president posts and vowed to reach out to non-Muslim minorities.

The new leadership of the party was immediately attacked as a tool of Anwar by Utusan Malaysia, the broadsheet mouthpiece of UMNO, and by Ibrahim Ali, the firebrand Malay who heads the Perkasa ethnic-Malay supremacy organization, which is allied with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

"Anwar's job is to split the Malays and dilute their focus on Islamic ideals as well as limit Malay privileges and destroy Malay unity," a lawyer close to the Mahathir wing of UMNO told Asia Sentinel. "PAS has dropped its Islamic state ideals in favor of the ‘welfare state.' The ulamas (religious leaders) are sidelined. In the short term there will be serious dropping of Islamic colors. In the short term perhaps PAS will get more and more support from the non-Malays and Non-Muslims."

While the party remains headed by an Islamic religious leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, the deputy presidents and vice presidents below him are dominated by a collection of parliamentarians, activists and think tank analysts dubbed "the Erdogans," a reference to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected as an Islamic leader in Turkey who against predictions continued the country's longstanding moderate policies. It is also a reference to allies of Anwar, who is regarded as close to the Turkish government. He once fled to Turkey's embassy after reports that he would charged with sodomizing his aide, the charge for which he is currently on trial..

There is speculation in Kuala Lumpur that the new leadership has so revitalized PAS and the Pakatan Rakyat leadership that Najib may put plans to hold an early election on hold.

"It's a very good lineup," an ethnic Malay businessman who didn't want to be quoted by name told Asia Sentinel. "The ulamas are still there in the Ulama Council but there are many moderates among them. There finally seems to be hope among non-Muslims and moderate Muslims alike that PAS is becoming a party where people can look for moderate, fair and tolerant leadership."

Most of the new leaders, he said, "are professionals – bright, progressive and who can accept the principle of acceptance of different races. Race has never been an issue with PAS, only religion. UMNO in the past few years has tried to be more Islamic than PAS and has evolved into a racial party. I am impressed by the new lineup. So are my towkay (prominent businessmen) friends."

Chief among the Erdogans is Mohamad Sabu, a galvanic public speaker from Penang and former member of Parti Keadilan who was twice detained under the country's Internal Security Act. His former membership in PKR has fueled UMNO charges that Anwar was behind the takeover of PAS. Sabu led the moderates' van, winning the party deputy presidency and crucially defeating a minority of conservatives seeking to lead a splinter group to link up with UMNO. The party's new leadership ends months of speculation that the Islamist-based party would split off from the opposition coalition to realign itself with UMNO, the country's largest ethnic political party.

Salahuddin Ayub, Husam Musa and Mahfuz Omar, elected as moderate vice presidents, complete a leadership team that reflects the party's changing membership of urban Malays who have been brought into the party, and are oriented towards working with other races to take the leadership in Putrajaya, the country's political capital.

It is uncertain how the party's new leadership will sit with the Islamic rank-and-file in rural Malay villages. Hadi Awang called for unity, telling the 1,000 delegates that the new cabinet is an election cabinet and reiterating the party's loyalty to the opposition.

"There will be a lot of confusion amongst Muslims in particular PAS supporters and in the long term confusion equals instability — and when these people finally had enough of the political games played by PAS leaders for votes at the expense of Islamic ideals, the blowback will be severe. Especially if the Malay population at large already sick of PAS rejects them in the general election," said the UMNO lawyer. "Then PAS will go 1,000 percent back to strict Islamic practice to make up for lost ground and the loss of face.

"In the end PAS has tasted power. It's not about ideals, Islam, it's about power."

The other question is how well Anwar's own moderate urban Malay party holds up against the allure of PAS, which is much larger and infinitely better organized than Parti Keadilan.

"Keadilan seems absorbed and obsessed by Anwar," the Malay businessman told Asia Sentinel. "If Keadilan can shed the Anwar obsession, Malaysia will have a real alternative to the sham that is the Barisan Nasional."

In what could be a harbinger of future political battle lines, the UMNO lawyer warned that if PAS leads the opposition coalition into power, it will later revert to its Islamic base and seek to institute harsh religious laws.