Malaysia: Malaysia's Islamists learn lesson at the ballot box

The Guardian
Dismayed by election setbacks, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) is learning the hard way that drains matter as much as faith when it comes to votes.
But like other non-violent Islamist movements across the Muslim world, its leaders also blame their misfortunes on fraudulent electoral practices and anti-democratic, institutional roadblocks erected by governments determined to retain power.
Nasharudin Mat Isa, the PAS deputy president, said like-minded parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, were increasingly heeding western calls to pursue their aims via the ballot box. But he warned that this evolution could go into reverse if the Islamists' progress was unfairly impeded, as he claimed happened during a recent by-election in Kelantan, where PAS narrowly lost.

"We decided after the election that we had to pay more attention to development issues that concern ordinary people, like education, services and sewage," Mr Mat Isa said. "We want to change the image of the party and increase our appeal to the non-Muslim, non-Malay Chinese and Indian minorities. We still want an Islamic state. But we want to discuss it in the context of universal values and rights, good governance, and justice issues."

Mr Mat Isa claimed abuses by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the main governing party, had distorted the result in the PAS heartland, Kelantan. "There was misuse of government machinery, impersonation, intimidation, manipulation of the electoral roll and media bias," he said. PAS has challenged the election result without success. The government denies the accusations.

According to Mr Mat Isa, PAS's efforts are now concentrated on forging a new electoral strategy, including alliances with domestic, secular opposition parties and with non-violent Islamist groups in Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan. Wanting to create a moderate Malaysian model, PAS has not officially endorsed Hamas, which has refused to renounce armed struggle, in the forthcoming Palestinian elections.

Talk among PAS hardliners is now of a boycott of the next federal election. That would deal a blow to Malaysia's reputation as a multi-ethnic, multi-faith state, and to US-led efforts to encourage democratic engagement in the Muslim world. Mr Mat Isa said: "Islam is advancing ... this is a global movement. There are different approaches, but the non-violent, democratic approach is growing in popularity." If the west allowed representative Islamist parties to be thwarted by ruling elites in Arab and other countries, the results would be disastrous all round, he said.

Yet PAS's travails could have a more prosaic explanation: a party that the government had linked to terrorism may be just plain unpopular - and possibly a little feared. The last federal election saw its parliamentary representation collapse from 27 seats to five. It also lost Terengganu, leaving Kelantan as the only state assembly under its control.

The PAS spiritual leadership's inflexible interpretation of sharia law, and its morality police "snoop squads", also seem outmoded to many Malaysians.

Mohamed Jawhar bin Hassan, chairman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, in Kuala Lumpur, said: "One unintended consequence of development and urbanisation is increased identification with religion . We need to restrain religious extremism. Governance in Malaysia is not perfect but the danger presented by some alternatives should not be scoffed at."

Simon Tisdall
Friday January 20, 2006
The Guardian