21 March 2004

Malaysia's Islamic Party Loses Ground in Elections

Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 21 -- The major Islamic party in Malaysia lost significant ground in parliamentary and state elections here today as the governing coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi coasted to victory.

The Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, lost the state legislatures in the oil rich northern state of Terengganu and in the neighboring state of Kalantan. In a humiliating loss, the leader of the party, Ulama Hadi Awang, lost his federal parliamentary seat.

The fortunes of the Islamic party, which won control of the Terengganu state legislature four years ago, were being closely watched as a barometer of militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, holds parliamentary elections early next month.

Since taking control in Terengganu, the Islamic party, popularly known as PAS, has imposed religious laws, including bans on alcohol and gambling.

"If this election says one thing it says that Malaysia is rejecting the Islamization policies of PAS," said Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asia studies at John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who is visiting here. "PAS has been decimated."

Mr. Abdullah, 64, who inherited the prime minister's job in November from the longstanding incumbent, Mahathir Mohamad, ran on an anti-corruption platform. He presented a more benign tone than his brittle predecessor, and as a descendant of Muslim scholars, the new prime minister appealed to voters who support a moderate version of Islam.

That approach stymied the efforts of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia to build on its gains in the Malay heartland, in the northern part of the country.
Among the lessons to be drawn here, it seems to me, is that the best way to keep any one religious faction from dominating government is to clean up government while also allowing all religious groups to participate in the political process. Targeting particular (nonviolent) religious groups--whether the Islamic Party in Turkey, the Falun Gong in China, or the Christian Coalition in the U.S.-- as in some sense "enemies of the state" seems only to backfire when the governing party itself loses credibility.

UPDATE: Head Heeb has more.

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