ANALYSIS-Gains for Malaysia’s radical Islamist party are a challenge for new PM Anwar


By A. Ananthalakshmi

KUALA LUMPUR, November 25 (Reuters)Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim will face in parliament a hardened Islamist party that espouses a stricter interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, a challenge to Anwar’s vision of an inclusive society.

Anwar will likely face challenges from the Se-Malaysia Islam Party, or PAS as it is known, which emerged as one of the big winners in Malaysia’s election last Saturday, risking deeper divisions in the diverse and diverse country. multi-denominational.

Anwar, who is Malay and Muslim, addressed race and religion in his first press conference as prime minister, promising to defend Islam as the country’s official religion and the rights of the ethnic Malay majority, while protecting the rights of all.

PAS, long a powerhouse in northeast Malaysia, became a national force by winning the most seats of any party: 49 out of a total of 222, nearly triple its tally in Malaysia’s last election. 2018.

PAS has banned movie theaters and advocated caning as punishment for homosexuality in the states it rules and put its religious appeals at the center of the election, with one leader saying voters would ‘go to hell’ if they voted for Anwar’s coalition.

Race and religion are thorny issues in Malaysia, where Malays of Muslim descent form the majority in a country with large Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, mostly Hindus, Buddhists or Christians.

As the largest party in parliament, PAS could push for Islamization and more affirmative action for Malays – a longstanding policy that Anwar opposes, analysts said. PAS could also use its religious credentials to distinguish itself from other Malaysia-centric parties, they say.

“PAS’s big victory in this election proves that Malay and Islamic politics are still the dominant core of Malaysian politics,” said Mohd Izani Mohd Zain, associate professor at University Putra Malaysia.

‘RELIGIOUS RHETORIC’

The election illustrated how polarized Malaysia has become.

While on the one hand the PAS fared well on its own, Anwar’s progressive party bloc, which includes the ethnically-dominated Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), won the most seats of all covenants.

A conservative, predominantly Malay Muslim coalition led by Muhyiddin Yassin, which includes PAS, came second.

The result was a hung parliament with no bloc winning a majority. In the following five day crisisethnic tensions erupted on social media.

Amid the stalemate, PAS called on all parties to respect the constitution, preserve public order and avoid provocations that could threaten national harmony.

The party did not respond to a request for comment but praised Anwar on Friday, saying it believed he would “prioritize the concept of federalism for all states and people.”

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore, called Malaysian parties a “race to the bottom” to prove their religious credentials to a significant portion of voters receptive to religious appeals.

“Certainly PAS could play their religious rhetoric,” Oh said.

PAS’s newfound popularity is also partly the result of the decline of the long-dominant United Malayan National Organization (UMNO), for generations the party of choice for Malays that has recently been mired in corruption scandals.

The former leader of UMNO, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, is in prison for corruption and abuse of power following the looting of funds from the state fund 1MDB.

“CLEAN PARTY”

Under current President Abdul Hadi Awang, the PAS has pushed for the expansion of Sharia law which allows for tougher punishments for Muslims across the country. Malaysia has a dual track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims alongside civil laws.

SAP press for the law aggressively as an opposition, though analysts say she moderated her views while part of a post-2020 coalition government.

In the regional governments it leads, the PAS has applied stricter rules. In Kelantan state, cinemas have been banned since 1990 for causing “social ills”, and in 2017 a man was fined for wearing shorts that exposed his knees.

In 2018, two women were publicly caned after being accused of attempting lesbian sex in Terengganu State.

PAS called for stricter controls on alcohol and gambling.

Analysts say the 70-year-old party, founded before Malaysia’s independence from Britain, has worked for decades to strengthen its reach, sometimes cooperating with Anwar and the DAP to win power .

PAS has also built a solid base through private and informal religious schools, which it partly funds.

It offers training to civil society and party members, aimed at producing scholars and professionals with Islamic knowledge, said Mohd Izani, adding that such efforts have helped PAS win the support of young Malaysians who want to see reforms.

“They see PAS as a clean party and its political leaders have no integrity issues,” said Mohd Izani.

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(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi, additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Kay Johnson and)

((ananthalakshmi.as@thomsonreuters.com; Twitter: @AnanthalakshmiA;))

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