No one was surprised at the content of the manifesto published this weekend by the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), the conservative Islamist political party in the Southeast Asian state. While there were some pledges around another issues, the core message was more Islam, which has been the party’s sine qua non for decades. The real question, beyond the manifesto, is what role, if any, PAS will play in Malaysia’s upcoming general election, which must take place before August.
There is little expectation of PAS itself performing well at the upcoming general election. To take just one example, Invoke Malaysia, a pollster, asserted this month that PAS could fail to win a single parliamentary and state seat. PAS currently has 14 seats in the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s lower house, and 78 in state assemblies. There are even doubts over whether it can hold onto Kelantan, its northern stronghold.
But the role for PAS could be that of a spoiler for the opposition rather than as a winner in its own right within the country’s broader political dynamics. In the past, PAS wielded some authority as part of the Pakatan Rakyat, an opposition coalition that won the popular vote at the last general election in 2013 but failed to win most seats in parliament. But PAS tore the Rakyat coalition apart in June 2015 after a faction of the party split from the alliance.
This stemmed from the party’s attempt to push for the introduction of hudud, an Islamic penal code, in Kelantan – a move opposed by Pakatan Rakyat’s multicultural parties, the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Around the same time, some progressive PAS politicians and members split from the party to create the National Trust Party (Amanah).
The DAP, PKR, and Amanah went onto form a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan. It was later joined by Malaysia United Indigenous Party (PPBM), a new Malay nationalist party founded by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He left the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the most important party in the ruling Barisan National (BN) coalition, in a blaze of fury after falling out with incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak.
With those dizzying political shifts in mind, the importance of PAS in the upcoming general election is not that it could win seats but that it could prevent the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition from winning them. Mahathir was onto something when he said, last month, that PAS’ “presence is merely to assist BN.”
In December, PAS said it would compete for at least 130 out of 222 parliament seats, though a final figure hasn’t yet been announced. The PPBM, meanwhile, will contest 52 seats in peninsular Malaysia, the most of any party from the Harapan coalition, while Amanah will compete in 27. The majority of these, for both the PPBM and Amanah, will be in rural, Malay-majority constituencies that typically fall to the UMNO. These are the same seats that the PAS is likely to also compete in.
During the last election, in 2013, when PAS was a member of the Rakyat coalition, it could contest seats head-to-head with the UMNO. But this time around, things will be different. In a good number of seats, the contest will either be between the UMNO, PPBM, and PAS, or between the UMNO, Amanah, and PAS.
A survey published in January by Politweet, a social media research firm, reckoned that PPBM could give the UMNO a good run for its money in a two-way battle. But in a three-way contest, UMNO would come off strongest as PAS would split the opposition vote, taking away invaluable percentages for the Pakatan Harapan coalition parties.
Not everyone agrees with this view, it ought to be noted. A recent commentary piece in the Malaysian Insight pointed out that PAS increasingly resembles the UMNO’s “lapdog.” The electorate might, too, rationalize that a vote for PAS is a vote for the UMNO.
How exactly PAS’s role plays out in the election and thereafter remains to be seen. Some analysts are of the opinion that, at some stage last year, the UMNO was seriously considering forming an informal alliance with PAS – or, at the very least, some sort of agreement based on the tacit acceptance that an UMNO-government would be better for PAS than one controlled by the Pakatan Harapan coalition.
But there is the slight chance that of the two grand coalitions won’t be able to form a majority government after this year’s election. And if PAS does win some seats, it might be able to choose which coalition to join, handing Putrajaya over to one of the coalitions.
There is another, more existential factor in PAS’ importance at this year’s election. In a recent article for Project Syndicate, Wong Chin-Huat, a political scientist at the Penang Institute in Malaysia, put it thusly:
If Mahathir cannot secure one-third of the seats in parliament, the PAS can claim that it is indispensable, even if it loses every constituency. In such a scenario, no Malay opposition leader would dare denounce the PAS’s Muslim nationalism. The UMNO, despite its electoral victory, would have even less of the moral courage needed to block the PAS agenda.
The question, then, is not just power but influence. PAS currently occupies the position as a conservative Islamist party. It has recently been rallying support around issues such as introducing hudud and emboldening sharia courts. If PAS retains some influence after the election, then do not expect these issues to go away. Indeed, UMNO might be forced to pander to such sentiments even more in this scenario.
But if PAS is humiliated at the polls – and even if the BN coalition wins overall and takes power – then “Malaysian politics will undergo significant changes,” Chin-Huat wrote, adding: “If Amanah can supplant the PAS as the main Islamic party, the trend toward religious extremism would likely be reversed.”
Whether or not that will take place remains to be seen. But if it does, that will hopefully give the country’s opportunistic politicians one less excuse to advance more exclusivist and hardline religious lines as they have done over the past few years.