Election victory brings hard questions for Malaysian Islamic Party

Election victory brings hard questions for Malaysian Islamic Party

Malaysia’s 15th general election, held in late November, is usually arguably the most historic in the country’s history. For the first time,   no coalition was able to secure a parliamentary majority , making hung federal parliament.

Adding to the unexpected distort, the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – one that historically wielded less influence among Muslims and cultural Malays – achieved their best ever outcome and came in initial with  49   of the country’s 222 federal parliamentary seats. The secular Democratic Activity Party clinched the 2nd spot, with 40 seats.

PAS is portion of the Perikatan Nasional coalition (translated as National Alliance). Together with the Malaysian United Indigenous Celebration (Bersatu), which earned 25 seats, the coalition secured 74 seats.

Meanwhile, the two additional coalitions – the particular centre-left Pakatan Harapan (translated as Alliance of Hope), and the centre-right Barisan Lokal (translated as Nationwide Front) – secured 81 and thirty seats respectively.

After a 7 days of intense discussions, the two coalitions – Pakatan Harapan plus Barisan Nasional – agreed to  form an unity government . The particular constitutional monarch, California king Sultan Abdullah  appointed Anwar Ibrahim , Pakatan Harapan’s Chairman, as Perfect Minister of the oneness government. Anwar later on chose the Chairman of Barisan Nasional, Ahmad Zahid, as the Deputy Prime Minister.

This connections between the two coalitions was unprecedented, using the two perceived as not likely bedfellows. The Barisan Nasional, dominated by the United Malays Nationwide Organisation (UMNO), experienced vehemently championed pertaining to Malay rights plus interests, while the Pakatan Harapan campaigned meant for racial equality.

Malaysia’s Prime Ressortchef (umgangssprachlich) Anwar Ibrahim heading on his first trip to the Prime Minister’s Workplace in Putrajaya. Photo: Wazari Wazir / Malaysia’s Department of Information/AFP

Secularism vs . Islamism

National politics in Malaysia has  historically already been structured along cultural lines . UMNO has historically dominated the political scene by mobilising the Malay electorate on the grounds of ethnicity and Malay nationalism. However , given that Malays are  legally obliged in order to profess the Muslim faith under the Malaysian constitution , PASSING has attempted to peel off Malay support through UMNO by difficult the latter’s high-end narrative.

Unlike UMNO, PAS claims to be more deliberate in upholding Islamic values. After it became the ruling government in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu, it  passed Syariah legislations   in 1993 and 2002 respectively. However , the federal government, then controlled by Barisan Nasional, prevented this kind of laws from getting enforced on the grounds of incompatibility with the federal constitution.

Factors behind the PASSING victory

Whilst PAS had in past times remained less important among Malays when compared to more mainstream UMNO, PAS currently provides almost double associated with UMNO’s 26 chairs after the latest selection. This can be linked to fortuitous circumstances facilitating PAS’ electoral turnabout, tactical alliances and smart messaging in recent years.

UMNO has been plagued by a series of data corruption allegations spanning in the era of previous Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is today imprisoned for his role in the  1MDB scandal , to current leader Zahid Hamidi (the newly-sworn Deputy Prime Minister) which is  at this point facing corruption trials .

UMNO has hence lost much reliability as the champion intended for Malay rights, especially after senior UMNO politicians broke away in 2016 to create Bersatu while leftover publicly committed Malay nationalists. Bersatu later allied with PASSING to form the Perikatan Nasional coalition.

This arrangement to collaborate with a rising Malay nationalist party (Bersatu) has enabled PAS to pay for its historical loss in Malay nationalist credentials. In this election, Perikatan Nasional campaigned on a welfarist, anti-corruption, and political balance platform, while equating support for Barisan Nasional as a vote for corruption.

Perikatan Lokal also claimed that Pakatan Harapan will be detrimental for Malay interests, with Muhyiddin Yassin reportedly activities during his strategy trail that Pakatan Harapan is backed by a  proxy that intends to “Christianise” Malaysia .

The success of Perikatan Nasional’s electoral strategy could be understood by the complimentary nature of PASSING and Bersatu, with each party having a strengths to cover for the ally’s weaknesses.

For instance, PAS’ status as a spiritual party contributed ethical credibility to the Perikatan Nasional coalition, while contesting under a main Malay-based coalition along with Bersatu offered PAS the cover to credibly compete across all Peninsula states.

People cast their ballots at a polling station throughout the 15th general political election in Bera, Malaysia’s Pahang state on 19 November, 2022. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

In regions outside its traditional Eastern Coast stronghold, PAS ran a controlled campaign to avoid the perception as being intense, staying laser-focused on economic and problem issues while avoiding references to Syariah law. High-profile social networking influencers also endorsed PAS while releasing  catchy Tiktok videos , which hindsight was a key component in gaining young Malay votes.

This turned out to be a winning strategy, with PAS for the first time capturing parliamentary seats within Melaka and being just short of replicating a similar feat within Johor. This is an impressive accomplishment given that PAS historically had minimum sway even amongst Malay and Muslim voters in the states south of Klang Valley.

The rise of political Islam within post-election Malaysia

Despite its historical gains in the general election, PAS at this point faces a daunting task in maintaining its latest electoral momentum.

Firstly, issues over corruption plus a faltering economy performed into the hands of PAS’ largely undesirable messaging. This may soon backfire since the present unity government can be now  opening new corruption investigations   towards senior Perikatan Lokal leaders.

PAS also seems to have returned to old playbooks to bolster its Islamist credentials, particularly with an eye towards impending condition polls in the three PAS administered declares of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu. PASSING has recently passed legal amendments in the Terengganu state assembly to  criminalise pregnancies outside marriage , while  banning all forms of (previously) licensed gambling within Kedah   starting January 2023.

This kind of legislative record might affect PAS’ reliability should it try to articulate a broad-based, multi-ethnic electoral platform for future federal and state elections.

PAS’ extraordinary ascent has ironically developed major paradox for the party moving forward. Provided Malaysia’s ethnic plus religious diversity, the greater intensely PAS pushes forth an Islamist agenda to enhance the moral standing, the more challenging it becomes pertaining to PAS to retain the recent electoral gains in demographically mixed and urban constituencies.

Nevertheless , should PAS decide to shift towards the center to appeal to voters in its recently won constituencies, opportunities may open up for electoral rival UMNO to encroach into PAS’ own traditional strongholds.

Therefore, the rise of PAS seems to be highly nuanced and context-specific. To solve this conundrum, the party will likely have to ask difficult questions of its political (or religious) identification before it can create upon recent increases to achieve another “green tsumani” in the upcoming state elections.

A version of this piece was first published in The Discussion .