The 54th Pas general assembly, held in Perak last week, was the first major party meeting since the March general election, when the opposition coalition (of which Pas is a part) did extremely well.

Not surprisingly, the mood both in the Ipoh assembly hall and the compound outside was bullish over the prospects for further electoral success as party grassroots spoke of the winds of change. Yet, at the same time, there was also an air of introspection. The debate coalesced around three issues.

The first, and arguably most controversial, was the question of its relationship with Umno, and in particular the muzakarah (unity talks) that have taken place between the two archrivals. The first salvo was fired by Pas Youth leaders, who took advantage of their earlier gathering to take senior party leaders to task for engaging in covert talks with Umno at the latter’s invitation.

Party president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and his deputy Nasharuddin Mat Isa came under especially heavy fire, with some Youth leaders accusing them of compromising Pas’s principles. Similar but more muted remarks were made by party division representatives who drew attention to the need for their leaders to be transparent with members and to consult them.

In a carefully calibrated response, Abdul Hadi made clear that the muzakarah was motivated primarily by concerns for the Muslim community. He then proceeded to put matters to rest by stating, to resounding shouts of approval, that Pas would never cooperate with parties or governments that are diseased.

What he did not explain, however, was the decidedly instrumentalist logic that led Pas to agree to the muzakarah in the first place. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s claim that there might be crossovers into Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition, particularly from Sabah and Sarawak, had worried Pas leaders. They were concerned that the largest Malay party in the coalition might in effect be relegated to third or fourth place if Anwar’s claims were proven true.

In addition, there remains lingering apprehension in some quarters of the party over the prospect of Anwar becoming prime minister, given the previous acrimonious relationship between him and Pas leaders. Some Pas leaders still recall how Anwar had flirted with them in the early 1980s, only to reject them and join Umno in 1982, after which he became one of their harshest critics.

A second issue that sparked intense debate was the state of Pakatan. Several delegates drew attention to the diminished role that Pas was playing in the opposition-held state legislatures of Penang, Perak and Selangor. Penang was a particularly thorny issue, with the Pas delegate from the state noting that the party had enjoyed a strong presence in Penang, and yet was now excluded from major decisions in the state government, now led by another Pakatan component, the DAP.

Similar sentiments were raised by representatives from Selangor and Kedah. All called for the terms of agreement between the component parties of Pakatan to be made clearer.

Notably, the caustic comments by grassroots leaders over the issues of unity talks with Umno and the party’s standing in Pakatan received a striking rebuke from deputy Musyidul Am, Ustaz Harun Din. He criticised delegates for their lack of respect and support for the decisions of party leaders, though the decisions were endorsed by the majlis shura (shura council), the highest decision-making body in the party.

Unlike Umno, whose rank and file threw their weight behind their party president in times of crisis, Pas members were questioning the decisions of their leaders, he said. In the final analysis, when the renewal of Pas’s commitment to Pakatan was put to the vote, the resolution passed unanimously.

These two issues reflected tensions brewing within both the party and the opposition coalition. The third could change the complexion of Pas altogether. Many party leaders acknowledged the pivotal role that non-Muslims played in the success of the Islamist party during the March 8 elections.

One of the most notable developments during the election hustings was the number of non-Muslims who campaigned and voted for Pas, especially in Perak and Penang. Delegates were bullish about giving the Pas supporters’ club, Kelab Penyokong Pas, a larger role in party affairs. Some even suggested that it was time to consider non-Muslims for full membership in the party and to be Pas candidates in future elections.

Given that Umno is itself struggling with the issue of opening membership to non-Malays, the tactical value of such a move would not have been lost on the party’s leadership.

While there was little overt opposition to an enhanced role for non-Muslims in the party, it remains to be seen what form such a role would take. As it is, the party’s constitution permits only Muslims to be full members. The presence of non-Muslim members would definitely change the party’s complexion. Indeed, some senior delegates were quick to remind members that Islam remains at the heart of the party’s struggle.

The theme of the 54th Pas general assembly was “Pas for All” (Pas untuk Semua). Going by the debates that took place, it is clear that while the party may be sincere in wanting to be inclusivist — both in terms of its politics within the coalition and its membership — it remains doubtful if it can become inclusivist without undermining its core interests.

The Straits Times