The biggest test for Pas’ leadership

Muktamar PAS kali ke-58

Zubaidah Abu Bakar, NST

PARTI Islam Se-Malaysia (Pas) is holding its annual national assembly in Kelantan next week, the last before the next general election, with analysts and political watchers looking for some clues on the party’s state of health and how well it would do in the coming polls.

In 2008, Pas won 23 parliamentary seats compared with only six wins in 2004. The question is whether they can repeat this performance given the changes that have taken place in the past four years.

The biggest test for Pas this time around is the strength of its alliance with its Pakatan Rakyat allies — Parti Keadilan Rakyat and DAP — given the recent spate of public bickering over issues from hudud to apostasy. The latter even led to the sacking of Datuk Hasan Ali from the party earlier this year.

These are some of the issues to be mulled by the more than 1,000 delegates at the three-day 58th Pas Muktamar at Pusat Tarbiyah Islamiyah Kelantan (Putik) in Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan, the party’s stronghold state for the past 22 years.

Party officials are not ruling out the possibility of sparks flying during the debates, as delegates push the party towards becoming a better Islamic organisation than it is today.

Over the years, Pas has evolved to become more inclusive to suit present times, and has grown to be the largest opposition party with close to one million members.

But Pas is not free from internal conflicts. Some members remain disenchanted that the organisation they joined to make Islam a way of life, appears to have been sidetracked.

The party’s readiness to dilute its Islamic agenda, particularly putting plans for an Islamic state on the back-burner, is causing concern among hardcore members.

For them, this “new thinking” is hard to swallow, despite explanations from senior party leaders, including the party’s mursyidul am (spiritual leader) Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat.

At last year’s muktamar, the Pas leadership shifted from the call for an Islamic state to the aim of creating a benevolent state. Delegates appeared to agree with the now-mellowed Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang that the difference between the two was only semantic as both concepts upheld the people’s well-being.

Nik Aziz had come to Pas’ defence on the change, saying it was the right move since some people found the term unacceptable, even scary. He also said Pas had not discarded the principles behind its struggle as an Islamic movement.

But the reality is that Pas suspended its ideals for the sake of a cohesive strategy for Pakatan Rakyat; the party had taken flak from the majority of Malaysians for its hardline stance on issues concerning Islam, including the setting up of an Islamic state and implementing hudud.

The coming muktamar will also test the effectiveness of the Hadi-Mat Sabu partnership and of the “general election team” that was voted in last year.

The party elections saw the progressives capturing crucial positions, and Mohamad Sabu, a non-ulama, ousting Nasharudin Mat Isa to become deputy president, much to the dissatisfaction of the conservative ulama in the party.

Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in political science at the Singapore Management University, wrote in an article that the new leaders continue to face an internal battle within the party as the conservatives — one group tied to the narrow concept of the Islamic state and the other tied to the “Unity Group” reminiscent of the 1970s — are fighting hard to hold onto their positions.

“Both visions — tied to old guards in Pas — are outdated, but they remain powerful ideas within Pas, and still permeate parts of the elected party leadership. Pas’ progressives thus face a difficult path ahead.”

The muktamar is also taking place amid questions over the health of Nik Aziz, although not many senior party leaders want to discuss it openly.

The rank and file in Pas fear losing Kelantan if, due to health reasons, Nik Aziz doesn’t take the lead in their campaign to retain power in the state. Nik Aziz, 82, who has been menteri besar since Pas came to power in Kelantan in 1990, has been in and out of hospital following a major heart attack in 2004.

Speculation about his health mounted after Harakah recently published a quotation from an interview with him, where he told Pas members to carry on his struggle to bring victory to Islam after his death.

Nik Aziz was also absent at the 230th meeting of the Conference of Rulers at Istana Negara on Wednesday, raising questions on whether his health would permit him to attend the muktamar.