Thursday, November 5, 2009
Islamic Party Gains Clout in Malaysia
Historic realignment of political blocs starts to appear a real possibility
On Nov. 23, after months of delays, a High Court in Kuala Lumpur is expected to hear yet another appeal from Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim against trial on charges that he had sex with a 24-year-old male aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan. Partly because of Anwar's troubles, not the least of them the charges, which have been hanging over his head since June of 2008, and for several other reasons, it is beginning to appear as if Malaysia is undergoing a historic political realignment.
Political observers in Kuala Lumpur say the sodomy charges, viewed by many as manufactured to destroy Anwar's political career, are leaving Anwar's own Parti Keadilan Rakyat distracted and rudderless. The heady days of March 2008, when the three-party coalition wrested five states from the Barisan Nasional and broke its 50-year hold on a two-thirds majority in Parliament, are in the past.
The opposition coalition is being harried on all sides by the Barisan and suffering from internal conflicts that have weakened it considerably. In addition, possibly because he is distracted by the trial, the sources say, Anwar, a charismatic speaker, has not been a particularly effective leader. As a result, the leadership of the opposition is passing from Anwar's Parti Keadilan to Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the fundamentalist Islamic party with its roots in the rural, poor northeast of the country. It is PAS, as the party is known, that has the political infrastructure, manpower and stamina for the long haul.
Many Keadilan members, one analyst says, came from the dominant United Malays National Organisation, the biggest ethnic party in the ruling national coalition, and they are susceptible to returning to it if they don't see the opportunity for Keadilan to take over to rule the country. And that hope appears to have gone glimmering after Anwar had promised to take over more than a year ago and failed.
In the meantime PAS has moved shrewdly to consolidate its growing power in urban areas, particularly the Selangor area surrounding the capital of Kuala Lumpur. Many ethnic Malays, turned off by the continuing money politics and corruption in Umno, are turning to the fundamentalist party, and a surprising number of other ethnic minorities as well.
But while PAS is seeking to project a more moderate image in the urban areas, the party is quite proud of the conservative changes it has made in the nearly two decades since it took over Kelantan state in 1990. Gambling outlets and pawnshops have been closed, unisex barbershops are closely monitored and Muslim women are required to wear headscarves.
So-called khalwat (close proximity) police roam the streets seeking to make sure boys and girls don't do what comes naturally to most boys and girls. Those restrictions are starting to be felt in Selangor as well. Religious police have raided nightclubs where ethnic Malay men and women have been found to be drinking, there have been attempts to stop beer sales in ethnic Malay areas and imams and bilals (muezzins) have been given the power to police dress and behavior.
Despite earlier flirtation by PAS president Hadi Awang and his supporters to consider joining Umno in an ethnic Malay-dominant PAS will choose to remain in the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, given that it gives the Islamic party the best chance to take power at a federal level despite the earlier flirtation by PAS president Hadi Awang and his supporters to possibly join Umno in an ethnic Malay-dominant coalition. With no business interests, in contrast to UMNO, PAS isn't interested in prolonging the country's New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program for the country's dominant ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population,according to an analyst for a Kuala Lumpur think tank Pas doesn't mind conceding to the Chinese community the entrenchment and growth of Chinese schools, since this doesn't conflict with PAS' goal of imposing shariah (Islamic religious) law. PAS has continually said shariah law won't apply to non-Muslims, pointing to their governance in Kelantan. But what a lot of Chinese forget is that because PAS
doesn't have power at the federal level, it cannot impose shariah law. Who knows what PAS will do if it gets the opportunity to impose shariah law throughout the country.
Will they exempt non-Muslims from Shariah law?
Neither PAS nor the Democratic Action Party, the ethnic Chinese leg of the opposition coalition, intends to let the coalition fail. The DAP, a cadre-based party with considerably more discipline than Parti Keadilan, has continued to gain membership at the expense of the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second biggest ethnic party in the Barisan, which is mired in one of the biggest scandals in the country's history over a plan to build a multimodal port system in Port Klang west of Kuala Lumpur. Party infighting has rendered the party nearly moribund.
There is a growing feeling that because of the wreckage of the minority parties, there is little hope that minority voters will return to the Barisan, and that it would be wiser to concentrate on trying to pull in the Malay vote by itself. If that happens – and Najib is said to be ambivalent at this point, continuing to push his 1Malaysia ethnic harmony mantra – it would be a breakdown of the historic tripartite ethnic compact that has ruled the country from its inception. Asia Sentinel