PAS appears to be riding a wave of confidence after its solid wins in the recent state elections. It should be more circumspect.
It is tempting to think of Perikatan Nasional’s (PN’s) rise as a linear trajectory to Putrajaya as Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) now stands at the peak of its powers. But if we have learned anything from history, it is that we should never underestimate PAS’s ability to get in its own way.
The internal rupture between PAS and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) is already starting to show. PAS had started to assume the role of de facto senior partner in PN — contesting the majority of the seats in the August state elections (126 out of 245 seats) and winning most of them (105 out of 126). Soon they will not be comfortable with inequality between seat count and leadership positions, with Bersatu currently assuming key leadership positions in PN, such as the chairman, parliamentary opposition leader, and secretary general.
Before the August state elections, PAS presumed that Bersatu was still necessary to give the coalition a veneer of professionalism, so that it could appeal to the broader electorate, chiefly the urban centres of West Malaysia. However, the August state election might just fuel PAS’ overconfidence that it could contest in all Malay majority seats on its own.
For instance, in Negeri Sembilan, a state deemed near-impossible for PAS to win before August 2023, saw PAS making more effective gains than Bersatu. Out of the 5 state seats won by PN, 3 were won by PAS, even though the party contested in fewer seats than its partner (13 against Bersatu’s 17).
As is characteristic of PAS, a party that prioritises political expediency under Hadi Awang, they are starting to perceive Bersatu as a partner delivering less than what it takes. In Kedah’s state government, PN was only willing to give Bersatu just three executive council positions (down from five positions previously). This created a uproar in the backroom during negotiations.
Bersatu’s relevance to PAS will continue to fade as it loses its funding value to the coalition after its party bank accounts were frozen in January and subsequently seized in April. Without a state government to its name, Bersatu will constantly rely on PAS’s goodwill to build its influence.
It is no surprise why PAS is now actively reaching out to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) again. Previously, PAS had worked with UMNO under the Muafakat Nasional charter, only to see the relationship end after two years with lots of name-calling and bad blood. PAS recognises the fact that it could not complete the last mile to Putrajaya without either absolute control of Malay-majority seats (120 out of 222 seats) or substantial non-Malay support. The latter is unlikely to be delivered by its multiracial counterpart Gerakan any time soon. This means that PAS is relooking at combining the Malay parties of PAS, Bersatu, and UMNO is its current strategy.
The only problem, of course, is PAS’s unenviable track record in party and coalition partnership. It is the only mainstream party that has never stayed with any entity it has worked with. This is unlike the coalition of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Democratic Action Party and Amanah, and the coalition involving UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and Gabungan Parti Sarawak. PAS also has the tendency to be domineering and bulldoze its way even in situations demanding equal partnership. The party’s boycott of the Gerakan President’s campaign in the Malay-majority seat of Bayan Lepas is proof of its unwillingness to compromise and concede.
But Hadi is a man in hurry, and his constant need to sell the “government collapse” narrative is a sign of his voters’ impatience. Throughout the state elections in August 2023, Hadi Awang told voters to choose his coalition, PN, as state government for the six states as an impetus to overthrow the federal government.
This is despite the fact that coalition compositions at the state level do not affect the federal level, or the two-thirds majority in parliament held by the federal government — the first time this has happened in 15 years — makes it unlikely for defections to succeed. At any rate, the anti-hopping law makes it procedurally challenging for defections to happen without legal consequences. In the end, the Unity Government bloc retained its three states and a collapse did not materialise.
As is characteristic of PAS, a party that prioritises political expediency under Hadi Awang, they are starting to perceive Bersatu as a partner delivering less than what it takes.
To underscore his desperation, Hadi Awang did the same for the recent Pulai by-election, arguing that winning one additional seat would create the momentum to change the federal government, however incredulous this is.
PAS voters have been unusually impatient since last year. When PAS was in federal government between 2020-2022 — the first time in its history — its state constituencies received allocations of RM3.5 million per year. Now as the opposition, PAS seats are deprived of this allocation, and voters in these areas are growing impatient. Former PAS ulama council member, Khairuddin Razali, said that Hadi Awang needed to give these voters the impression that their allocations were coming soon, and the only way was to sell the “government collapse” narrative.
When the “government collapse” did not materialise after the August state elections — and it will likely remain the status quo after the Pulai by-election — PAS’s desperation will grow. This was evident in the numerous attempts to elicit defections to change government at the Unity Government-held Perak state before and after the August state elections.
The Unity Government could consider giving equal funding to all seats to assuage some of Hadi’s impatience. Or it could wait and see where Hadi’s anger leads him. Either way, PAS’s overconfidence may be ruining its chances.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.