PETALING JAYA — PAS may have forced its way into Malaysia’s mainstream politics, but the Islamist party increasingly seems to be in unfamiliar territory now that it is charting a path on its own.
Its leaders brazenly announced last year the party would be the kingmaker in the general election, but as reality sets in, their tone as they head towards nomination day has developed a softer quality.
Wading into the general election virtually alone, after it decided not to play second-fiddle to DAP in the opposition pact, PAS leaders have reverted to the tune they know best — bolstering Islam and its laws — and tried to position their party as the sole champion of the issue.
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang is also on a nationwide tour to galvanise supporters and jump-start the party’s formidable election machinery.
But what is missing this time is the dark horse persona, as PAS attempts to portray itself as a credible alternative to the ruling Barisan Nasional and the rival Pakatan Harapan opposition pact.
PAS is missing both the underdog quality that has served it well before and the “wow” factor to draw new support, even from among conservative Muslims who are considered its core audience.
Forced to compete in an arena where it must bank on more than just religious matters, PAS appears out of touch with the urban electorate and, to some extent, the rural Malays as it attempts to present its position on bread-and-butter issues affecting the public.
Most worryingly for PAS is that even its religious mainstay is no longer unique, with BN pledging in its manifesto to continue enhancing and strengthening the country’s Islamic institutions if it is returned to power.
While PAS can only pledge at this point, BN can point to its existing efforts to uplift Islam in a manner consistent with the Federal Constitution, which both burnishes its own credentials and undermines the Islamist party’s platform.
This leaves PAS at a critical juncture, one it seems ill-equipped to handle as it struggles to present a proposition that is not based solely on Islam, no matter how noble its original cause may be.
PAS also has no one but itself to blame for allowing its key religious platform to be usurped.
With little new to offer voters and lacking candidates who can lay claim to being intellectual or moderates who can marry Islamic tenets with modern concerns, PAS is in a lonely place.
Both BN and the informal PH pact have presented manifestos rooted in the realities of daily life, but PAS continues to read from its old script, one that is tried and tested, but also one that voters will have heard many times before.
It is not without fresh ideas, however, as young leaders in the party have proposed new paths and methods, but few — if any — survive the conservative eyes of the party’s elders.
This leaves PAS neither able to appeal to its old core or draw in the new and young for its bid to be a serious contender.
The good news is that the party does not have major internal strife to quell heading into the polls, but there remains a gulf between PAS’ hopes and the bitter reality that awaits it on nomination day tomorrow.
As in past elections, PAS will come armed with plans for the afterlife, but scant few on how to help the public between now and then.
It will again trot out its effort to reinforce Shariah laws, to improve Islamic and tahfiz schools, and defend the position of Islam, but will lack focus once forced outside of its comfort zone and into areas such as the economy and government policy.
This is a massive shift from just last year, when it seemed as though it might upset BN in Kedah and regain the state, but it is clear now its support is set to be cannibalised by the splinter Parti Amanah Negara and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Even in its bastion of Kelantan, things appear bleak.
BN chairman Datuk Seri Najib Razak personally launched his coalition’s offensive on the state last week and, after nearly three decades under PAS, the state may again turn blue after GE14 if the coalition’s local leaders can stick to the game plan.
With each passing day, PAS finds itself increasingly out of its depth on a ship sailing headlong into rough political seas.