PARTI Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) believes that, for once in its 67-year history, it is poised to be in a position to influence the government in power after the upcoming 14th general election (GE14) — or it could be making a disastrous miscalculation.
This dream could be achieved if PAS is able to collaborate with the winning side in GE14, which promises to be a nail-biting contest.
The backdrop to this drama is formed by the declining fortunes of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has the challenge of defending its unbroken 61-year rule since the country’s independence.
In the last general election, BN managed to form the federal government with 133 seats despite losing the popular vote, polling 47.38% to the then Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition’s 50.87%.
This time around, say political observers, the stakes are even higher.
However, the political waters have become muddy since the last election.
“Coalitions can be so fluid in Malaysian politics,” notes Norshahril Saat, a political analyst at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
PAS contested in GE13 as part of the PR coalition. Over a year later, the partnership fell apart in a flaming row with the DAP over the status of shariah law in relation to the Federal Constitution.
Now, PAS stands between the Umno-led BN and the new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), which comprises PKR, DAP and the splinter parties, Amanah and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).
Some observers believe that PAS’ move to abandon its former allies will cost it dearly.
“GE14 will go down in history as the election with one of the worst results for PAS,” Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) political analyst Mohammad Agus Yusoff tells The Edge.
Ironically, many political observers say not only will PAS be punished for exiting the opposition bloc, but the PH parties too will also be hurt by the split, especially in three-cornered fights.
All this centres around BN’s waning political influence in the last decade, which is in contrast to its long run as the driver of the nation’s development.
So, for BN to continue to be in the driving seat, it must realign the country’s political forces. This is where PAS gains a new relevance as a kingmaker in GE14.
That explains the growing focus on Malay unity and the position of Islam in the country’s affairs, especially following GE12 in 2008.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question, however, is whether PAS, which has its support base in the rural Malay heartland, is up to the task of swinging a broader sweep of voters into its fold.
“Certainly not this time around,” says Agus. “Perhaps we could say no non-Malay voters would vote for PAS anymore.”
Nevertheless, PAS leaders who spoke to The Edge were undaunted by such talk. They were confident that the party’s core supporters had not fallen away, its election machinery is strong and the party is addressing a number of perception issues that could affect its attractiveness to the electorate.
“In rural areas, our machinery is huge. This is what other parties do not have,” PAS research centre director Mohd Zuhdi Marzuki told a press conference last week.
However, there is no recent precedent to show how PAS would fare outside an election pact.
In 1999, as part of the opposition Barisan Alternatif, it won 27 seats, the highest number ever. The 2004 election was a disaster for the opposition, and PAS was left with only seven seats. In 2008, it won 23 seats as a Pakatan Rakyat partner and in the last outing, its tally was 21 seats.
As a political move, the decision to part ways with PH has only one positive outcome, says ISEAS’ Norshahril.
“I think the only benefit is that PAS can tell the electorate that it is true to its values and Islamic agenda.
“It can also tell its supporters it respects the views of [Datuk] Nik Aziz [Nik Mat] about Umno-PAS cooperation, some of whom remember the bitter 1970s experience when PAS entered BN and eventually lost Kelantan,” he says in reference to the highly esteemed late PAS spiritual leader.
In light of the decades-long enmity between Umno and PAS, it was a major about-face when the BN government cooperated with PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang and allowed him to introduce the controversial bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, commonly referred to as RUU355, in 2016.
It is notable that Hadi’s bill, as the amendments are also called, was the only instance in Malaysian parliamentary history since 1977, that a Private Member’s Bill was introduced in the Dewan Rakyat.
Although neither Umno nor PAS has clearly spelt out a political pact, the space given to Hadi in Parliament supports the view that something is afoot.
“That Mr Hadi has been allowed to speak three times on the motion in Parliament without this proceeding to a debate or vote suggests that the law-making process has been turned into a political game,” said UKM Institute of Malaysian and International Studies senior research fellow Helen Ting in a commentary last year.
A senior PAS leader who spoke to The Edge rubbished the notion.
“Opposition leaders have talked as though PAS is in the same boat with [Prime Minister and Umno president Datuk Seri] Najib Razak. This, voters cannot accept. This is propaganda, as if we are always agreeing with Umno,” says PAS vice-president Idris Ahmad.
“Malaysian politics is between PAS and Umno. We see that Umno sometimes feels comfortable [about its status], because no matter what they do, they still garner support from Malays.
“The only one that can challenge Umno’s credibility at the grassroots level is PAS.”
True to this argument, PAS has announced that its own loose coalition, Gagasan Sejahtera, will contest in more than 130 seats.
By its own reckoning, PAS sees itself as having 40 parliamentary seats in the bag, along with three states — Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah — even possibly leading a unity government in Selangor.
For many analysts, however, this is a pipe dream.
Just last week, an analysis by Invoke Malaysia, a reform group led by PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli, shows that PAS will be totally wiped out in three-cornered fights in Peninsular Malaysia and will lose Kelantan to BN.
UKM’s Agus sees the reasons for this outcome as rooted in the shifting political affinities.
“Voters at large are confused about PAS’ role and intentions in GE14,” says Agus.
“People are sceptical about answers by PAS. The answers are confusing and can result in voters losing confidence in the party, including fence-sitters and even its hardcore supporters,” says Agus.
He foresees the proportion of its staunch supporters dwindling from 30% to 20%, due to a lack of a strong direction in its political mission.
Other major questions centre around its ability to manage the economy, based on its record in administering Kelantan, and its unconvincing display of political will to tackle corruption.
For PAS’ leadership, these issues pale in comparison to the prospect of its ambitious election target.
Asked to state the party’s stand on collaboration with the winning side, Idris is non-commital.
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” he says. “That strategy will be discussed later. Now we will concentrate on winning, and not just 40 seats.”