BANGKOK, THAILAND — The sweeping victory of Malaysia's secular rulers in last Sunday's national elections emphasizes the narrow appeal of Muslim hard-liners in Southeast Asia, where strict religion-based politics run up against multiethnic realities.
Muslim voters dealt a potentially knock-out blow to the conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which slid to third place in parliament.
This message may resonate in neighboring Indonesia when it holds national elections on Apr. 5. Although several Muslim-oriented parties are expected to do well, their platforms mostly eschew calls for strict Islamic law in favor of vague appeals to Muslim brotherhood.
"[PAS's] loss will be felt across the Muslim world. They were seen as a future model for political Islam in a democratic context," says Karim Raslan, a political analyst and author. PAS has forged close ties in recent years with like-minded parties in Indonesia, Egypt, and other Muslim-dominated countries, he says.
For Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, a former Muslim scholar who took office last October and campaigned on a platform of rural development and anticorruption, the election was a personal triumph. His ruling coalition won 90 percent of seats in parliament and regained majority in one of two state legislatures formerly dominated by PAS. Adding to its humiliation, PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang lost his seat by only 163 votes.
Noordin Sopiee, who chairs Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a political think tank, says this shows Islamic challengers to secular politics can be curbed at the ballot box. "There's a lesson here. You can democratically win over conservative, fundamental Muslim candidates if you have the right mixture of leaders and policies, and if you appeal to people with respect and humility," he says.
Poll-watchers in Malaysia give Abdullah credit for reaching out to rural Malays who deserted the ruling party at the last election in 1999. They say his soft-spoken manner, Islamic piety, and refusal to rise to the bait of his conservative foes played well among Malay voters, particularly first-time voters attracted to his reformist rhetoric.
By contrast, PAS relied on firebrand speeches and attacks on the ruling elite that appeared to backfire in the northern states known as the Malay heartland. Analysts say voters were turned off by its focus on religious issues in state politics, including laws to impose sharia codes and segregation of sexes in public places. Meanwhile, during his campaign swing through the region, Abdullah chose to emphasis how education and modernity were part and parcel of modern Islamic thought.
"PAS thought they could reach people with religious propaganda, but they weren't offering an alternative to [the ruling party]," says Syed Hussein Alatas, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Malaya and author of several books on political Islam in Malaysia.
Abdullah is expected to use his mandate to reform a system of political patronage that flourished during decades of rapid economic growth. Unease over corruption and abuses of power under his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, helped drive Malay voters into the opposition camp at the last election, though many have since returned.
Analysts say PAS mistakenly chalked up those gains as support for its conservative agenda, rather than as a protest vote during a deep recession. Its clerical leadership is likely to face internal calls for greater openness and more emphasis on bread-and-butter policies over religious rhetoric. Yet the defeat suffered by the Islamic party could also prompt fundamentalists to join extremists underground, some analysts warn.
For now, PAS has been relegated to third place in parliament with seven seats behind the Chinese-oriented Democratic Action Party, which won 12 out of 219 seats. Mr. Alatas argues that this effectively ends the party's claim to represent the aspirations of Malay voters. "As far as Malays are concerned, there is no Malaysian opposition party now, only a Chinese opposition," he says.
Still, it may be too early to write the party's obituary. Despite the losses at state and federal level, PAS managed to slightly increase its share of the popular vote to 15.8 percent, and lost by narrow margins in several key seats. Analysts note that it has clawed its way back from similar setbacks in the past and retains loyalty in rural districts. And if Abdullah fails to deliver on campaign promises, public sentiment could quickly turn against his party, analysts say.
The ruling coalition, which won 65 percent of votes cast, was further helped by revised electoral boundaries that broke up PAS supporters, and the addition of 26 new seats, all outside the Malay heartland. The government's near monopoly on national media and a campaign period of only eight days also hurt the opposition.
Some opposition leaders have alleged fraud over the rolls used in federal elections and said many registered voters were left off the list. But threats of a legal challenge to the result are unlikely to make much headway, as Malaysia's judges rarely oppose the government.
Arguably the biggest loser at the ballot was the National Justice Party, formed by Azizah Ismail, the wife of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was imprisoned in 1999. It lost four out of the five seats it had won at the last ballot when its cause was helped by sympathy for the jailed Anwar, who claimed that Mahathir engineered his downfall.
Alone among the opposition, the Justice Party campaigned for civil rights and greater freedom of expression. Despite his antigraft talk, analysts say, Abdullah is unlikely to ease restrictions on free speech and assembly or cede power of a judicial system tilted in his favor.