Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat ’s intention to contest elections until he breathes his last does not necessarily mean that he also intends to hang on to his Mentri Besar post. JOCELINE TAN offers a glimpse of those who are next in line after Nik Aziz
PAS politicians and supporters have grown quite used to the unconventional remarks that often emanate from the lips of Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, their revered Mursyidul Am or Spiritual Leader.
Nevertheless, many of them were taken aback when the frail but still spirited PAS leader announced that not only would he remain a candidate in the next general election, he would be contesting elections until the day he dies.
It was a stunning statement rarely heard from politicians operating in a democracy and who have to seek a fresh mandate every few years.
There was a pronounced and somewhat awkward silence from the PAS side.
It's not that they don’t want Tok Guru Nik Aziz to stay on as Mentri Besar of Kelantan. They want him to lead Kelantan PAS in the general election and, in fact, they need him to remain as Mentri Besar if PAS is to hold on to Kelantan.
But the statement carried a touch of presumptuousness that PAS politicians probably felt less than comfortable with.
PAS politicians have since tried to downplay the issue. They are acutely aware of the irony that their Tok Guru is talking about staying on indefinitely at a time when Umno is talking about change and renewal. It was embarrassing, to say the least.
“It’s nothing unusual. We all want Tok Guru to contest the next general election,” said Wan Ismail Wan Jusoh, assemblyman for Melor and a former press secretary to Nik Aziz.
The 71-year-old Nik Aziz is in “good health for someone his age.”
Said Wan Ismail: “He has no major health problems. He is fine as long as he gets enough sleep and rest. Otherwise he gets stomach pains. It’s true he was in hospital a number of times but it was to rest, not because he was sick.”
Some in PAS say Nik Aziz was merely trying to bait his opponents in Umno, particularly in the context of an interview with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah published by a Malay daily in which the latter said Kelantan Umno had no equivalent to Nik Aziz.
Nik Aziz, as even those in Umno have reluctantly admitted, is still central to PAS politics in Kelantan. He may not have lived up to most people’s idea of a dynamic and modern administrator, and he sometimes comes across as a provincial leader, but he is generally still regarded as a decent, God-fearing man in the often anything-goes world of politics.
Perhaps an important point to note is that he did not state he would be hanging on to the Mentri Besar post, but only that he would contest again. They are two quite different things.
PAS insiders say that in several private sessions with Nik Aziz in recent months, the elderly man had indicated he is ready to call it a day in politics, that he wants to return fulltime to his “first love” – preaching and teaching religious knowledge.
He also indicated he might be persuaded to defend his Cempaka seat if the party insisted, but that he was quite definite this would be his final term as Mentri Besar.
Was he genuinely weary or was he, as they say in politics, flying a kite to determine which way the wind was drifting? No one is sure at this point in time, nor do they dare enquire.
Currently, Nik Aziz’s political clout is still unrivalled, despite his shortcomings.
In that sense, said Datuk Rozali Isohak, an Umno politician from Kota Baru, PAS would be weakened without Nik Aziz.
“People here say that once he goes, it will be downhill for PAS in Kelantan,” Rozali added.
And that may explain why PAS politicians are somewhat torn on the issue.
On the one hand, they are aware that they need the reputation and personal charisma of Nik Aziz to carry them through another victory in Kelantan. On the other, they know they need a more dynamic and proactive administration after over a decade in power.
The other irony is the accusations about overstaying that they used to level against their nemesis Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad has boomeranged on them.
By the time the next general election is called, Nik Aziz would have been Mentri Besar for at least 14 or 15 years, about as long as Dr Mahathir had been Prime Minister when PAS politicians began calling on him to retire.
Nik Aziz may be a good six years younger than Dr Mahathir but he possesses neither the stamina nor physical health exhibited by the Prime Minister.
“Now they are silent about their own boss overstaying. It’s like saying the new generation cannot lead,” said Datuk Kamarulzaman Zainal, a senior aide to the Deputy Prime Minister.
Some in PAS say there is no succession plan.
Harakah editor-in-chief Zulkifli Sulong stressed that Nik Aziz's retirement has “never been discussed because it's not an issue.”
Party secretary-general Nasharuddin Mat Isa added: “The succession has not been decided. Only the central committee can decide and it will depend on the recommendation from the state.”
Others say there is no plan as such but there are possible candidates.
“We know who they are, it's just that we don't talk about it. You know, like having a kenduri, you cannot spread out the feast too early otherwise it will attract flies,” said Nasharuddin.
PAS circles say one of them is clearly Deputy Mentri Besar Datuk Abdul Halim Abdul Rahman, who is known for his pleasant demeanour.
Those in the know say Halim has shouldered a large chunk of the day-to-day administration of the state and has built up a wealth of experience. The Al-Azhar graduate was a religious teacher at Sekolah Maahad Muhamadi before going into the construction material business and then politics.
Halim, in his mid-60s, has been a patient No.2 to Nik Aziz although he was at one time named as one of the “Tiga Abduls” scheming to succeed Nik Aziz. He has kept a relatively low profile for someone of his ranking and his drawback is that he is not an impressive speaker in a party where popularity is often rated based on oratory skills.
If hierarchy and experience were the most important criteria for succession, then Halim would be the next Mentri Besar – except that ascension in politics is often far more complicated.
But Nik Aziz is said to personally prefer Mohamed Daud, head of the Kelantan Dewan Ulama and the state exco member in charge of Islamic Development and Dakwah. Everyone in the party refers to him as “Mat Iraq” because he studied in the University of Baghdad in the 1960s.
His beard is the longest and bushiest in the entire state exco. However, he looks far younger than his 64 years, a fact some attribute to his life-long habit of consuming honey every day.
The former university don is regarded as the only ulama whose religious knowledge is comparable to Nik Aziz's, and the latter often consults him on a number of religious issues. However, his strength lies in religious affairs and he is said to be wanting in leadership qualities.
Halim and “Mat Iraq” fit in with the PAS policy of “leadership by the ulama.”
If the ulama factor were not a criterion, then state exco member Takiyudin Hassan, 39, would be in the running. The state PAS Youth leader and Universiti Malaya law graduate is a popular figure who relates well to a broad section of the population.
He enjoys the confidence of Nik Aziz who relies on him when it comes to legalistic issues.
“YB Taki,” as he is known among reporters, hails from Kedah but married a Kelantanese when he was posted as a magistrate in the state. His uncle is former Umno minister Tan Sri Hamid Othman.
But the future Mentri Besar, said Tumpat MP Datuk Kamaruddin Jaaffar, may not necessarily emerge from the present state exco.
One possibility is Pengkalan Chepa MP Nik Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, a newcomer to politics, an ulama and former Universiti Islam Antarabangsa lecturer. His late father was also MP for the area and he studied in UIA before doing his Masters in the United Kingdom.
Amar had made little impact in Parliament but the odds favouring him lies in the argument that if there is a change in leadership, Kelantan PAS may want to usher in someone from a more contemporary generation.
“The unspoken consensus is that Tok Guru should continue as MB. There is no pressure on Tok Guru but there are choices and I think people are quietly planning for a succession,” said Kamaruddin.
The potential candidates after Nik Aziz are not unimpressive but neither are they overly impressive. Without Tok Guru, Kelantan Umno will not find it that difficult to give PAS a run for its money.
And that may explain why PAS needs Nik Aziz to go on and on.
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