If one had opined that PAS was more of a centrist than UMNO 10 years ago, nobody would have believed it. It would have been an outrageous opinion. Yet today, it is no longer so foreign a prospect.
The recently concluded PAS internal election is the latest evidence of the party’s march to the centre. That election saw both the promotion of the so-called professional group to the leadership of the party and the adoption of a more realistic stance with regards to the Islamic state agenda.
The participation of PAS within Pakatan Rakyat has a lot to do with the reconfiguration of the party towards the political centre. While the criticism of ideological difference against the coalition as a whole remains valid, the alliance itself is the great engine that is pulling all of its members to a middle ground. That middle ground is proving to be the Malaysian centre.
This is should be contrasted with trends within Barisan Nasional, or really, just UMNO.
Regardless of the sincerity of the accusation, UMNO and its allies insist that PAS is committing a political betrayal. They claim PAS is abandoning the Islamic state ideal and ejecting the ulama from party leadership. Rather than acknowledging the developments as simply a move to the centre, they are more comfortable accusing PAS of kowtowing to DAP.
Betrayal or not, as with any move to the centre, those on the fringes will have less hold on the party. That will fuel some discontent.
UMNO-owned Malay daily Utusan Malaysia wants UMNO to appease the fringes. Assistant chief editor of Utusan Malaysia Zaini Hassan has gone as far as suggesting that UMNO should have its own ulama wing, perhaps thinking that particular man oeuvre could outflank PAS.
He forgets that times have changed.
In the past, the Islamization race between UMNO and PAS always ended up with PAS being the loser. PAS did not budge even as UMNO encroached on the traditional domain of the former. That allowed UMNO to win centrist votes and gain some voters who could have voted for PAS.
That little trick might not work again after the latest PAS election.
With PAS slowly nudging towards the centre and UMNO to the opposite direction, the Islamization game has only one participant, and that is UMNO. With enough momentum powering both sides, UMNO might find itself taking the relatively more extreme position compared to PAS. This means UMNO is at risk of becoming the loser this time around.
If both parties stay on their course, UMNO will turn into the conservative party that PAS was. Meanwhile, PAS the centrist should be very happy with that.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on June 14 2011.