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Picking the perfect No. 2

INSIGHT BY JOCELINE TAN (The Star Online)

The contest for the post of PAS deputy president picks up pace as the party struggles to find the perfect deputy to complement their president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang.

DATUK Seri Hadi Awang has been looking a little more modern ever since he ditched his old-fashioned metal-rims for trendy retro-style spectacles.

He also looks a little slimmer now that he is watching his diet following a mild stroke last year. His habit of downing heavy meals after the late night ceramah is a thing of the past.

He has stopped riding horses but still indulges in his favourite pastime, angling. Recently, he caught a whopper of a fish during a trip to Tasik Kenyir. It was a beautiful ikan temoleh that was almost as long as his torso and he held it up like a proud father.

Hadi is looking quite good – physically, that is. Morally, too, he is up there. He is respected as a theologian with not a whiff of scandal to his name and he is still living in that old kampung house by the Rusila Mosque where his religious lectures are amplified from the tallest minaret on Fridays.

But there are rumblings on the ground about his leadership of PAS – he is too provincial, not political enough, lacks economic know-how and flip-flops on issues. His standing as an ulama is unrivalled but, increasingly, more and more people have doubts that he is Prime Minister material.

However, Hadi is on course to retain the PAS presidency which he has held since the 2002 death of the far more politically-savvy Datuk Fadzil Noor. Despite such shortcomings, he is still PAS’ leading choice for president.

Recently, the party’s Bukit Bintang division caused a stir when it nominated Kelantan politician Datuk Husam Musa for the top post. It upset people in the party, including Husam, who quickly said he was not qualified for the post.

PAS will vote for a new leadership line-up on June 3.

The temperature started rising as one division meeting after another made its nominations for the top posts.

The post of deputy president is the proverbial hot seat and the heat is on the incumbent Nasharudin Mat Isa who is vying for a fourth term.

Everyone in the party is talking about how Nasharudin is trailing his challenger Mohamad Sabu, better known as Mat Sabu. The market talk is that Mat Sabu is leading with some 70 nominations against Nasharudin’s 40 or so.

It is not a good situation for Nasharudin considering he is the incumbent. He is also Bachok MP and an ulama whereas Mat Sabu is just an appointed party central committee member who spends most of his time on the ceramah circuit.

On paper, it appears that the PAS grassroots prefer Mat Sabu over Nasharudin.

But there is a dark horse in the background, namely Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, the stern-faced ulama from Pahang. The former university lecturer keeps a low profile and is not a sociable man but his religious standing is held high in the party.

He was a regular face on RTM’s religious programmes but his TV career came to a sudden halt when he joined PAS.

“I have heard him speak. His religious lectures are very powerful,” said Dr Rayney Ali, head of the Wangsa Maju division which nominated Tuan Ibrahim for the No. 2 post.

Tuan Ibrahim, currently a vice-president, is evidently the preferred man for the post. Unfortunately, he hails from the old school that frowns on fighting over a post. He is said to be willing to accept the post by consensus rather than contest.

Moreover, he told Harakahdaily in an interview that he was not interested in the No. 2 post. But several divisions pressed ahead and nominated him.

“Tuan Ibrahim is the future face of PAS. He is a model ulama,” said Pengkalan Chepa chief Datuk Nik Amar Abdullah.

Will he or will he not? That is the big question now hanging over Tuan Ibrahim’s future.

PAS members are anxious that the No. 2 should also be an ulama in the event of something happening to Hadi so that the “Leadership by Ulama” policy goes on. The idea of Mat Sabu taking over as president due to unforeseen circumstances sends shivers down their spine.

But the Erdogans or the progressive group in the party are backing Mat Sabu to the hilt. They see him as the best bet to represent their agenda for a more open PAS and the new politics ahead.

His supporters include some big-name Erdogans – Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Khalid Samad, Dr Hatta Ramli and Datuk Kamaruddin Jaffar, all of whom rose to prominence during the Reformasi period and are now Parliamentarians.

Old politics vs new

“It’s not so much about conservatives and Erdogans as a debate about old politics and new politics. PAS has to deal with so many new issues out there – the call for more transparency, working with non-Muslims, (and) federal politics. Those are big things,” said law expert Prof Aziz Bari of Universiti Islam Antarabangsa.

But Mat Sabu’s main hurdle is his non-ulama status. His chief claim to fame is his talent as an orator and his legion of admirers all over the country are drawn to his folksy charm, wit and daring.

This is Mat Sabu’s second bid for the post; he and Husam lost to Nasharudin in 2009. Mat Sabu’s supporters claimed he stands a good chance because during the three-way fight for the No. 2 seat in 2009, Mat Sabu and Husam secured a combined total of 542 votes against 480 by Nasharudin. They are hoping that Mat Sabu may actually beat him this time.

The question that begs to be asked now is where has Nasharudin gone wrong? He was the golden boy of the Erdogans and they engineered his elevation from secretary-general to deputy president in 2005.

He speaks fluent Malay, Arabic and English and is rather likeable as a person. He was then only 43 and was seen as the modern face of the ulama class in PAS.

But since winning, he seems lost on big issues, rarely speaks out and for many years, he was more interested in following Hadi around than carving a role for himself as the No. 2. The last straw for the Erdogans was when he became associated with the “unity government” or UG group that allegedly held talks with Umno in the name of Malay unity.

His almost namesake and ultra-conservative Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan is a star in comparison. The young ulama is outspoken and his blog shows that he takes strong stands on issues. A recent blog posting trumpeted: “Islamic State the solution to race relations.”

Even when it comes to Twitter, Nasrudin has more than 3,000 followers. Nasharudin has only 88 followers and his last tweet was in October 2010 when he congratulated the Kelantan football team on winning the Malaysia Cup.

The Erdogans are now backing Mat Sabu. But the problem with the Erdogans is that they are seen as a little too tied up with the politics of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and many in the party are not comfortable with this.

The conservatives had been suspicious of Anwar even before the sex video controversy. They are not saying that the man in the video is Anwar or even that he looks like Anwar. In fact the party’s reference to the Islamic qazaf ordinance, that it is a crime to make allegations of adultery without proof, was the perfect way of handling this embarrassing issue; it is an Islamic yet diplomatic stance.

But the cloud of controversy surrounding Anwar has not endeared him to the conservatives and that could be a problem for Mat Sabu and his backers.

“Our priority is the general election. The new line-up must be able to take the party to the general election and capture the young Malay vote. If anything happens to Anwar Ibrahim, the Prime Minister has to come from PAS. Our line-up has to send a clear signal to the electorate,” said vice-president Salahuddin Ayob.

But these are still early days. Party insiders suggest that Tuan Ibrahim may yet be persuaded to contest.

And the man with the clout to do that is said to be none other than PAS secretary-general Datuk Mustafa Ali, a powerful figure in the party.

During an interview with The Star, he initially insisted that he would be neutral in the polls. But when pressed about whether he might “advise” the candidates vying for the important No. 2 post, he said he would decide after nominations closed on May 15.

The man to watch is Mustafa. He is the sort who talks softly and carries a big stick and he can make things happen in the party. He is probably waiting to assess the nominations coming in before making his move.

Mustafa, more than anyone else, understands what PAS is up against in the next general election. In 2008, their breakthrough came because of the angry mood and also because the enemy was sleeping.

It’s going to be different this time and, as Nik Amar said: “We need wise decisions to enter the next level of politics.”

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