Malaysia’s Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) appears to be undecided over whether to join forces with the United Malays National Organisation or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Hesitation, however, is not indecision: PAS is hedging its bets for more leverage.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), recently issued an ultimatum to Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) demanding that it officially separate itself from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Once this has been done, PAS can work with UMNO again in preparation for Malaysia’s upcoming 15th general election (GE15). PAS Vice President Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man responded that Zahid’s remarks were his own and did not officially represent UMNO’s stance as a party. He added that PAS has continued to collaborate with UMNO and other Malay-Muslim parties under the 2019 Muafakat Nasional (MN) pact to unite the Muslim community (ummah). It appears that PAS is hedging its bets: for as long as it is in a formal alliance with UMNO’s rival Bersatu as part of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, the Islamic party seems reluctant to sever its ties with UMNO. This way, it can maintain its place in the federal government post-GE15, either in coalition with UMNO or Bersatu.
The hardest aspect of any formal alliance heading into the election is seat negotiation. In the case of PAS, UMNO and Bersatu, seat negotiation is even more difficult as they will be vying for the same Malay-majority rural and semi-rural constituencies. PAS and Bersatu are in the same PN coalition, which perhaps makes seat negotiations between the two parties easier. UMNO, due to its long and tumultuous history with PAS, will be harder to please. Seat negotiations are smoother when a party is already dominant in certain states, like PAS in Kelantan. In Kelantan, PAS and Bersatu have agreed to work together under the PN logo to retain their incumbencies and to find the most suitable candidates to challenge the state’s three UMNO MPs and seven state assembly persons.
In a highly urbanised state like Selangor, however, seat negotiation among PAS, UMNO and Bersatu is complicated by the dominance of the PH coalition and the dearth of Malay super-majority constituencies. Numerically, they can wrest some of these rural and semi-rural seats away from PH, but only if they work together. These include the seats of such as Sabak, Permatang and Jeram. In the 2018 general election, PH’s winning margins in these seats were slim. But then, which party is willing to give up an opportunity to claim its share of the electoral pie? At the moment, cracks are already visible in PAS-Bersatu alliance in Selangor as both parties attempt to divide the state between themselves. This is despite the assurance of Bersatu’s chairperson, Muhyiddin Yasin, that PAS is fully committed to an alliance with Bersatu.
Another aspect that makes a formal working relationship between PAS and UMNO difficult is their long-running feud that traces back to their brief and disastrous alliance from 1974 to 1977. PAS at the time felt that UMNO emasculated PAS as a junior partner, including by UMNO’s declaration of a state of emergency in Kelantan. In the end, PAS lost the state to UMNO in 1978 and only regained it in 1990. The politics of development and Islamic resurgence that followed added more fuel to the fire.
This political enmity is so bitter that its reverberations are still felt today. Rank-and-file cadres in PAS and UMNO, particularly in the Malay heartlands of Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu, tout the feud as the sole reason to argue that ‘never the twain shall meet’. An UMNO stalwart in Jeli, Kelantan related to the author that he could never partner with a party that has for many decades called him “kafir” (unbeliever). He is a devout Muslim, and his sentiment is shared by many UMNO supporters in these deeply conservative states. Likewise, a PAS activist in Kota Bharu, Kelantan told the author he can never forgive UMNO for depriving Kelantan of development funds and oil royalties simply because it was an opposition state. Despite the apparent chumminess between the leaders of both parties, the level of distrust is high among the grassroots; as a result, there is no guarantee the latter will go along with any pact made by their national leaders. It is worth noting that before 2015, PAS’s leaders had rejected any alliance with UMNO at the national level.
PAS has two distinct choices. It could work with UMNO to become more competitive in other parts of Malaysia where it is relatively weak, but risk suffering another bout of mistreatment by its stronger partner. It could ally with Bersatu, which despite its national weakness, nonetheless holds some sway in the southern peninsular states and Kedah.
Nevertheless, what can PAS gain by working with both UMNO and Bersatu? By joining forces with UMNO, PAS will be able to extend its reach to parts of peninsular Malaysia where it has been historically weak, such as Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, and Johor. This is akin to when PAS was part of the then Pakatan Rakyat coalition (2008-2015) with the secular Democratic Action Party and multi-racial Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which gave it inroads into urban and semi-urban areas. Meanwhile, the present alliance with Bersatu allows PAS the chance to play big brother to the weaker Bersatu. Bersatu is dependent on PAS’s grassroots machinery to mobilise its supporters as it has almost none. In the state of Kelantan, for instance, there are only eight Bersatu branches, as opposed to dozens of PAS and UMNO branches. In short, PAS no longer plays second fiddle in the PN coalition, unlike when it was with UMNO in the 1970s.
Regardless of which party it decides to tango with, PAS will most likely hold on to its strongholds with ease. PAS has two distinct choices. It could work with UMNO to become more competitive in other parts of Malaysia where it is relatively weak, but risk suffering another bout of mistreatment by its stronger partner. It could ally with Bersatu, which despite its national weakness, nonetheless holds some sway in the southern peninsular states and Kedah. PAS’s machinery gives it an edge over Bersatu within PN. PAS also knows that UMNO may come calling if it fails to secure a parliamentary majority.
As things stand, PAS’ gambit is setting itself up to have it both ways. If PN joins the federal government after the election, PAS will partake in the spoils. If UMNO wins, PAS might still be invited to join the federal government. In some situations, hedging might be a sign of indecision. In the case of PAS, this is not the case, as both options allow it to act in its own interests.
Azmil Tayeb is a Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.