KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's opposition has been in disarray since the June break-up of the seven-year-old Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance, which only two years ago pushed the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition almost to the brink of defeat in the 2013 general election.
The seemingly ineluctable tussle over Islamic criminal law, or hudud, caused an acrimonious falling out between the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), leaving third component Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) in the unenviable position of having to decide on the make-up of a new opposition pact.
The DAP is backing the newly- formed Parti Amanah Negara, comprising moderates who left PAS in recent weeks, to replace the Islamic party as the politically necessary Malay-Muslim lynchpin in a reconstituted PR.
The developments since June appear to have sidelined PAS from the larger opposition movement.
Still, those who think a PAS-free opposition pact is a sure thing may want to think again.
The anti-government rally led by electoral reforms group Bersih that drew tens of thousands of supporters over the Aug 29-30
weekend stood out for the low turnout of Malays.
A major reason had to do with PAS, whose leaders decided that it would not join the rally calling for embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign. The absence of PAS, which provided the bulk of participants and logistical support in three previous Bersih protests, was keenly felt, both the organisers and other opposition parties acknowledged.
This allowed PAS deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man to declare that "this shows that PAS is the biggest opposition party and continues to play an important role in the country's political scene".
It is not a hollow boast.
Even prior to the Bersih rally, there was already a split within PKR, with some members wanting to cling on to PAS.
PKR's deputy president Azmin Ali is the Menteri Besar of Selangor, the richest state in Malaysia. His position owes something to PAS' refusal to endorse PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of jailed leader Anwar Ibrahim, as menteri besar. Currently, Mr Azmin easily controls two-thirds of the State Assembly with the support of PAS, DAP and Amanah. Without PAS, however, this hold will be weakened considerably, analysts noted.
"Only PAS possesses the legitimating credentials and the organisational machinery that can galvanise the Malay community against Umno," Professor William Case of the City University of Hong Kong's Asian and International Studies Department told The Straits Times.
Indeed, Anwar acknowledged as much when he took care to mention PAS in his welcoming message to Amanah last week. The new party, he said, would "further strengthen the national opposition, together with Keadilan, PAS, DAP".
On Monday, Mr Azmin indicated his party would be open to continuing to work with PAS.
"Any party, including PAS, that continues to be committed to Pakatan Rakyat's common agenda, then of course we will work together with PAS and any political parties that share these policies," he said.
Over the longer term, PKR's considerations for not severing ties with PAS boil down to this: the Islamic party's "wala" (loyalty) principle ensures party discipline in a political machinery in which "pahala" (religious merit) and material incentives are the driving motivation for over one million members, who are largely concentrated in the overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim east coast states.
This is what has helped PAS to stay in power in Kelantan for all but 14 years since Malaysia's independence in 1957, and also to form a government in Terengganu twice. Outside the east coast states, PAS has also been credited with helping the opposition sweep to unprecedented victories since 2008.
"PAS' stranglehold in the 'Quran Belt' is indeed hard to wrestle over. Amanah can at best appeal to the more urbanised folk who are more progressive and open-minded. But these urban constituencies are outnumbered by their rural counterparts," said Mr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
In the shorter term, internal strife in BN may well present opportunities, however small, to lawmakers who are trying to form pacts to unseat the Prime Minister.
For instance, DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang has been touting a "Save Malaysia" alliance without PAS since the split. It would comprise MPs from DAP, PKR and Amanah along with those willing to leave the BN. But PKR reckons that the task would be made that much easier by roping in MPs from PAS.
Observers note that PAS president Hadi Awang's refusal so far to back moves to topple Datuk Seri Najib could open the way for his party to save the Prime Minister and perhaps gain a toehold in government. This is despite PAS' insistence that it remains opposed to Umno even if it is not part of an opposition pact.
All things considered, PAS is nowhere near being down for the count. While Amanah leaders are more accepting of the opposition's mainstay of non-Malay voters, PAS continues to be a dominant force in the east coast, where Islamic considerations play a major role in politics.
But the wider opposition will have to consider whether damage from constant bickering, especially in an electorate that values stability, makes it worth the while to have PAS on board.
Dr Bridget Welsh, an expert on South-east Asia at the National Taiwan University, notes that Amanah will find replacing PAS challenging "especially to come into its own identity and to develop grassroots outside of using money and patronage". "But they (Amanah's challenges) pale by comparison with the challenges that Umno has to face in earning back credibility (instead of) relying on payoffs and fear," she said.
So if the opposition is indeed serious about taking down BN, the new Pakatan and PAS might do well to consider the option of an electoral pact before the next general election, which must be called by 2018. That would be a good first step.
This article was first published on September 10, 2015.
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