MALAYSIA - The upcoming internal polls of Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) look set to be dominated by an internal tussle over support for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose leadership of the three-party alliance has drawn battle lines between the incumbents and challengers.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, 66, a cleric, is unchallenged and will retain his seat for a fifth term. But the incumbent deputy president and the three vice-presidents - all aligned with a party faction in PAS that supports Mr Anwar and are dubbed "Anwarinas" by the media - are being challenged by the Islamic party's conservative ulama, or Muslim clerics.
The biennial elections will be held during the PAS annual assembly on Nov 22 to 24 in the Selangor capital of Shah Alam.
Even if two of the three ulama challenging the party's deputy president and three vice-presidents secure a win, it could shake the cosy ties that the Islamic party has with the Pakatan opposition alliance, which in turn could change the landscape of Malaysian politics as it could mean that the PAS is turning back to its fundamentalist roots.
Pakatan Rakyat (PR), which includes PAS, Mr Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, won the popular vote in the May general election and shrank the parliamentary strength of the ruling Barisan Nasional.
Before the 2008 general election that gave birth to the PR alliance, PAS was known as a fundamentalist Islamic party restricted to the rural Malay-belt states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis.
But now, as a member of the PR, PAS has become more acceptable to non-Muslim voters by embracing the alliance's largely multiracial outlook.
Still, there is no denying that the conservative section of PAS, led by several prominent clerics from the so-called Ulama group, is uncomfortable with the party playing a junior partner's role in PR. Some in PAS are unhappy with the alliance's plan to make Mr Anwar prime minister, instead of Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi, should PR win federal power.
Others complain about PAS being forced by its alliance partners to suppress its Islamic agenda, such as being stricter on alcohol sales.
Yet others are uncomfortable with what they see as Mr Anwar's personal problems, such as a criminal sodomy charge and sex video scandals allegedly involving him.
Asked about the challenge facing PAS, deputy president Mohamad Sabu, who will face conservative cleric Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the Deputy Menteri Besar of Kelantan, downplayed the ideological differences between the progressives and the ulama faction.
"There is no big difference whether you are an ulama or not. Below the president, we are just the executive body that carries out what has been decided jointly," he told The Sunday Times on Saturday.
But the Ulama group, at its widely reported cleric convention in September, decided that PAS should carry out a review of its "tahaluf siyasi", or political cooperation, with PR.
While some interpret this as a signal that PAS might want to leave PR, others believe the leadership of the Islamic party is keen to stay on as the opposition alliance has made PAS' name acceptable to non-Muslim voters.
"Pakatan has been good for PAS, so it should strengthen the cooperation. Wanting PAS to leave Pakatan, that is Umno's campaign," said Mr Shukur Harun, a columnist with the party's newspaper, Harakah.
Mr Mohd Amar, the cleric who is standing for the post of deputy president, dismissed the idea of PAS wanting to leave PR but said a review of the party's ties with Pakatan was necessary.
"We are not talking of pulling out of Pakatan but we need to examine the problems and mistakes that caused Malays to support Umno instead of PAS (during the general election)," he was quoted as saying by The Star on Saturday.
PAS won 21 parliamentary seats compared with 23 in 2008, whereas Umno improved from 79 to 89.
While this is not the first time that the shadow of Mr Anwar has split PAS, this year's internal election is the first time that the Ulama group has banded together to put up its candidates to take on top leaders of the Anwarina faction.
A win by at least two of the three clerics in the fray will reflect widespread support for the conservatives, who could then demand more say in how the opposition alliance is run.
Nearly 1,300 PAS delegates from across Malaysia will vote, with about half the delegates hailing from outside the four Malay-belt states where the ulama faction is strongest.
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