PAS is at a crossroads. The loss of Kedah as well as the fact that it has two seats less in the Dewan Rakyat weighs heavily on its leaders.
It must surely now be pondering the party’s direction as well as its place in the Opposition i.e. Pakatan Rakyat.
But PAS is not the only South-East Asian Islamist party pondering its future. Look at the challenges facing Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
First founded in 1998 as the Justice Party (PK), it made a splash in 2004 when it won 45 seats in the House of Representatives and then 57 seats in 2009.
Like PAS, PKS is an ideologically-driven and disciplined party.
I can still remember the ease with which PKS could call its supporters out onto the streets and the extraordinary order with which it undertook its demonstrations, with men and women clad in white, striding separately yet determinedly.
After the turmoil and drift of the Reformasi years, the PKS embodied the discipline that Indonesia appeared to desperately need.
Indeed, the party was a revolutionary experiment in Islamist politics.
Its moderate approach to social issues and firm anti-corruption platform gave it a wider appeal than most of Indonesia’s previous Islamist parties.
When I’d meet staff in hotels or shops across Jakarta and ask which party they supported, PKS was almost inevitably the first mentioned.
The party won respect from the youth due to its crusade against corruption, loose living and its emphasis on dakwah.
People want to be free, but they also want lives of purpose. The PKS was able to tap into that.
The party’s success also held the promise that political Islam could function, indeed thrive, in a democracy.
It’s arguable that PAS’ “Erdogan” faction modelled the Malaysian party’s dramatic move to the centre based on PKS.
But how the mighty falls!
Former PKS president Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq was forced to resign earlier this year after an aide, Ahmad Fathanah, was accused of accepting a Rp1bil (RM301,000) bribe from a beef import firm.
Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) last week attempted to seize cars at the PKS headquarters, claiming the vehicles were purchased with bribe money linked to Luthfi’s case.
The KPK has also investigated or questioned Luthfi’s successor, Anis Matta, as well as other party leaders like Agriculture Minister Suswono and PKS elder Hilmi Aminuddin.
The PKS responded by vowing to lodge a report against the anti-graft body with Indonesia’s National Police, who have no great love for the KPK.
One cannot help but feel that the party is fast becoming part of the discredited establishment.
One wonders whether the PKS’ problems are part of a wider trend of Islamist parties failing to perform once in office, as evidenced by the failure of Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt or the descent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) into authoritarianism in Turkey.
Ironically, all three of these Islamist parties have failed to deliver the “justice” promised in their names.
It seems the PKS is in for an electoral drubbing come the republic’s 2014 national elections.
An Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) poll on March 17 found public support for PKS at a measly 3.7%.
On the other hand, Ahmad Heryawan and Gatot Pujo Nugroho’s victories in the recent West Java and North Sumatra gubernatorial elections suggest it remains a force in Indonesia’s provinces.
At the same time, it suggests that the PKS is losing the wider appeal it gained from outside the party’s hard-core supporters.
Now, I’m not at all suggesting that PAS’ leadership is guilty of the same moral or financial improprieties that PKS’ is.
But the two parties’ bold attempts to become broad, national parties have reached a crisis point – albeit for different reasons.
PAS should deserve credit for winning broad support from the Chinese-Malaysian community. It’s natural and logical for it to do so.
But its failures in Kedah and Kelantan robbed Pakatan of making further gains in the 2013 elections. It seems to be better at winning power than at governing.
How it makes up for these deficiencies will determine its future.