A hardline Islamic opposition party picked a new crop of leaders yesterday in crucial elections that saw modernists challenging fundamentalists who want Malaysia to be ruled by religious laws.
Some 1,100 delegates of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), holding its annual congress at the party's stronghold in northeastern Kelantan state, cast secret votes to pick top office-bearers from the deputy president down. Results will be known today.
The polls are being closely watched for the direction the party will take amid a split between traditionalists keen to preserve ultra-Islamic policies and modernists clamoring for reforms after the party's defeat in last year's general election.
A number of young, professional leaders are running for top posts and for the first time a woman, a British-trained physician, has been allowed to vie for one of three vice-presidency slots.
The party has little appeal outside Kelantan, the only one of Malaysia's 13 states that it rules. The rest are controlled by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's Barisan Nasional coalition, dominated by his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which espouses moderate Islam.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 25 million people are Malay Muslims, while non-Muslim Chinese and Indians comprise the rest.
PAS believes in the strictest interpretation of Islamic laws, including chopping the hands of robbers and stoning adulterers. In Kelantan, women and men have separate lines in supermarkets, and top party officials have famously said that women wearing lipstick and perfume are inviting rape.
PAS, once a growing opposition force, suffered a humiliating defeat in elections last year to Abdullah's coalition. It was a wake-up call to PAS that it must temper its hardline policies and widen its appeal among non-Muslims if it wants to pose a serious challenge to Abdullah.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang acknowledged that during the congress' opening on Friday.
"We accept the fact that Malaysia is a multiracial country," Hadi said. "PAS can't rule based solely on Muslim support. We need the cooperation of all races."
"We must pool our strengths to topple [the ruling government] and alter the country's political landscape," he said.
However, PAS will not dilute its aim to enforce Islamic criminal and civil laws that would be applicable only to Muslims and not Chinese and Indians, Hadi said.
On Friday, Hadi also invited former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim to join PAS in an alliance and lead the opposition campaign against UMNO.
Anwar was once deemed successor to prime minister Mahathir Mohamad until their fallout amid a power struggle in 1997. He was fired by Mahathir in 1998 and was jailed on sodomy and corruption charges that he says were trumped up. Anwar was acquitted of the sodomy charges last year, when he was freed from jail after serving out the corruption charges.