Malaysia: Major defeat for progressives and for Islamists

A report on the major defeat of the Islamist party PAS in Malaysia's recent elections.
However, other Opposition groups were similarly rejected by voters. This could be both due to the Opposition's failure to take a clear stand regarding the Islamist parties' proposal for an Islamic state, as well as due to decades of indoctrination by the ruling party, UMNO, which have made people fearful of change.
The Malaysian electorate, which includes a Muslim majority, has clearly rejected proposals for an Islamic state - but they have preferred to state this anonymously through the ballot box rather than take a public position.

Ruling Party Win Leaves Opposition in Tatters

by Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 22 (IPS) - In what is probably the biggest upset in Malaysian electoral history, the Islamic opposition party and its sole ally, the National Justice Party of jailed former deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, have lost nearly everything they had won in the 1999 election.

At the time, they benefited from massive backlash against former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was perceived to have had Anwar arrested in 1998 because he posed a challenge to him.

But in the Mar. 21 polls, voters routed the state governments led by the Islamic party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in the Muslim majority strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu. PAS managed to win only six of the 86 parliamentary constituencies it contested. PAS held 27 seats when parliament was dissolved on Mar. 5.

Top PAS leaders who had claimed to speak for Malay Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 25 million people, fell like tenpins. Many reeled in shock and tears at the scale of the defeat.

The National Justice Party lost nearly all the 48 seats it contested. However, its president, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar Ibrahim's wife, won her Permatang Pauh seat by 590 votes on a recount.

When the full results and recounts are over, experts expect the ruling National Front government, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to win 200 of 219 seats in the expanded parliament. It received 4.3 million or 64 percent of votes cast Sunday and at least 12 out of 13 states. The voter turnout on average was 63 percent.

PAS received one million votes or 15.8 percent while the Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party made a dramatic comeback, winning 12 parliamentary seats and 630,000 votes.

Political pundits are arguing the causes for such a big rout. What happened and why?

"The verdict is a resounding endorsement of Abdullah moderate and progressive Islam," social scientist Chandra Muzaffar told IPS in an interview. "Malaysians - Muslims and non Muslims -- alike have made a clear and unambiguous decision rejecting PAS-style radicalism in the name of Islam."

"This defeat is the worst ever suffered by PAS. I wonder whether they will ever politically recover," Chandra said. "The challenge now is managing the victory, how Abdullah treats the huge mandate from the people."

Chandra urged Abdullah to press ahead with his anti-corruption and transparency drive and his advocacy of moderate and progressive Islam.

PAS won Kelantan state in 1990 on the back of support from a breakaway faction from the ruling UMNO party.

PAS had campaigned on what it called a 'Islamic state' platform, telling the majority Malay Muslim voters it would implement Islamic 'shariah' laws in all states it wins as it had done in Kelantan and Terengganu.

The policy drove non-Muslims to the ruling National Front and it was assumed, wrongly, that Muslims were in favour of greater Islamisation and would return PAS in the other Muslim-majority states of Kedah and Perlis.

Analysts said the losses PAS suffered on Sunday showed that its 1999 gain was entirely because of protest votes against the Mahathir government over its treatment of Anwar Ibrahim. "When that sentiment faded, the voters returned to the government fold especially with Dr Mahathir gone and replaced by a kindly, mild-mannered Islamic scholar who only wants to do good," an academic who declined to be named told IPS.

"The retirement of Dr Mahathir and the pleasant personality of Abdullah took the spite out of the Malay anger," he said. "Muslims also generally rejected Islamic radicalism of the type advocated by PAS."

"After the Sep 11 tragedy, both non-Muslims and Muslims rejected the PAS style of combative political Islam. The rejection is clear," another analyst said. "It is a victory for secularism and multi-cultural Malaysia."

It is the first vote since the start of the 'war on terrorism' following the Sep. 11 attacks in the United States. The verdict rejecting Islamic fundamentalism is expected to have an impact in the Muslim world, where Malaysia has status as one of the few modern and successful Muslim nations.

Abdullah took over from Mahathir in October and immediately wooed Malays by distancing himself from the veteran, canceling some wasteful megaprojects and pledging to clean up the civil service, restructure the police force and put an end to official corruption.

His focus on agriculture, rural development and public health were popular.

In the wake of the vote, some fear that the massive loss would radicalise PAS. The government has jailed without trial about 90 people, many of whom are former PAS members, accusing them of being members of the banned Jemaah Islamiah militant group.

But Chandra says PAS has always stuck with the constitutional process and it is "very unlikely" the main party would radicalise and take to a new, militant path.

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang himself vowed to stick to the constitutional way. "We accept the verdict and will continue the fight for Islam in the parliamentary way," he said.

Analysts say a lot now depends on how Abdullah handles the resounding victory and how PAS handles its defeat.

"It is important that Abdullah carry out his many promises to combat corruption and promote transparency and accountability," Chandra said. "He has defeated Islamic radicalism. He has got the large mandate he wanted. He should carry out his promises and only by doing that can he stop PAS-style Islam from making a comeback.''

Abdullah has vowed to press ahead with his anti-corruption drive and bring accountability and transparency to government. "I am grateful to Allah because the National Front has been blessed with a huge victory in this election," Abdullah told a victory party early Monday morning.

Murugesu Pathmanaban, a political analyst with the Center for Policy Sciences, said of the Mar.21 poll result: "The verdict leaves him (Abdullah) in a strong position to carry out his promises and clean up the government," he told IPS. "There is no reason not to deliver on the promises with such a resounding verdict."

As for PAS, he said the clerics who now lead the party would be under pressure to hand over to the progressives and modernists in PAS. "PAS has been in the wilderness before. They have tasted defeat and they will get over this defeat," Pathmanaban said. "The government has to keenly watch radicalism in any form."

Political pundits are predicting the demise of the Justice Party, which at one point had been seen as the force that could have faced off with Mahathir. Some say the party's defeat and the fact that the victory has strengthened Abdullah both in the ruling UMNO party and in the government, could lead to a rapprochement with Anwar Ibrahim.

"Abdullah is strong enough now to at least consider all possibilities with respect to the future of Anwar," Pathmanaban said. "Anwar is no longer a political issue."

Anwar was tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail on sodomy and corruption charges following his 1998 arrest, charges that his camp says had been fabricated.