The question of leadership in a coalition government, should the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) form the federal government in Malaysia next year, was a glaring issue given insufficient attention recently at the annual assembly of coalition member Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
A conservative faction of PAS demanded that party president and Muslim cleric Abdul Hadi Awang (right) be made prime minister if the Islamic party wins the most seats in the general election due by April.
"This is not for the sake of revering him but he is the most qualified person to become the next prime minister... and we, as proteges of an Islamic party, should not campaign for others to take on the post," said Hairun Nizam of the party's Ulama wing at the assembly last weekend.
Although there was boisterous approval from delegates, it was quietly dismissed as "premature" by senior party members since there would be no certainty that PAS would win the most seats when compared to its partners and whether Datuk Seri Hadi would be elected to Parliament.
The demand caused some discomfiture among coalition leaders because Hadi appeared to have given tacit approval to the idea of him being made leader of a PR government. In his winding-up speech, thanking delegates for choosing him to be prime minister, he said: "It is syiok (thrilling) to be PM. All I can say is that I ask for God's help, that Islam will be the eventual winner."
It contradicts the consensus among coalition leaders that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, as opposition leader, is the designated prime minister-in-waiting if the opposition takes over Putrajaya.
The lobbying for Hadi as prime minister is not totally unexpected, given the undercurrent of uneasiness among PAS' conservative segments since it began working with secular forces in the coalition.
First, it is a clear indication that people in the party are unsure whether the PR set-up will respect the party's Islamic principles. As the party still insists on its goal of an Islamic state despite promoting its "benevolent state" concept, it wants the holder of the highest office in government to be someone with a thorough knowledge of Islamic religious laws and practices.
By having Hadi as prime minister, the party assumes that it can rely on the cleric to ensure the setting up of an Islamic government and the implementation of the hudud, the Islamic criminal code that prescribes punishments such as amputation of the limbs and stoning for certain offences.
Second, it is evident that the rank and file of PAS, especially those in the rural heartland, are still uncomfortable about the party's two partners in the coalition - the secular but Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Malay-based Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
Both parties are basically secular parties which do not share the same ideological leanings and political goals of the Islamic party.
Third, there is strong resistance in PAS' conservative faction to Anwar being made prime minister-designate. It is based on their negative perception of the opposition leader's past as a former Umno deputy president and his long association with a party they strongly detest. The conservative elements are also discomfited by suspicions of Anwar as an exponent of religious pluralism. It is a concept based on the notion that no religion, including Islam, has the monopoly on truth.
Hadi appeared to go along with the conservative party members when he did not dismiss their overtures at the party's annual assembly. The party president has also signalled to them that he is not exactly content in playing second fiddle to Anwar in the coalition. He did this a week before the annual assembly by offering to contest against Prime Minister Najib Razak in his Pekan bastion. If someone from Pakatan Rakyat were to challenge Datuk Seri Najib, it should be Mr Anwar, and not the PAS president.
Hadi does not seem to stand a good chance of becoming the prime minister-designate. He does not have Anwar's international image and years of experience as opposition leader. Hadi's image as a cleric bent on implementing hudud and the Islamic state concept works against him. He will not be able to command respect and support from the non-Malays. Hadi's administrative experience is limited to five years, during his tenure as Terengganu state's Mentri Besar. But Umno wrested the state away from him in the 2004 General Election, when it was under his watch. He was blamed for the party's defeat in Terengganu.
With all the odds against Hadi becoming prime minister, the lobbying for him to lead a PR government should raise alarm bells within the opposition. A PR government under Hadi as prime minister would rattle the non-Malays, who fear increasing Islamisation and all the implications for their way of life.
There could also be a backlash with the non-Malays not casting their votes for PAS, despite most of them supporting the opposition. If this happens, PR's dream of taking over Putrajaya may not materialise because of the Islamic party winning fewer votes compared to the other two component parties.
Hence the call by conservative PAS delegates - for the party president to lead the next government - is not a sideshow after all. It may appear to be a flippant suggestion from a section of a component party, but the idea itself has serious implications for the broader opposition coalition.
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