Malaysia's Islamic party fighting for survival in its last political bastion

Kota Bharu, Malaysia - When an Islamic political party swept to power in Malaysia's rural Kelantan state in 1990, its leaders created a model of strict fundamentalist rule that seemed out of sync in the progressive, Muslim-majority nation.

The state's largely conservative populace embraced the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party as a harbinger of morality and pious governance. But 17 years later, the party's grip on power has become tenuous amid glacial economic development and heavy reliance on religion for votes.

This has offered the best chance yet for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's National Front secular coalition to wrest control of the only Malaysian state ruled by the opposition. Elections are widely expected before early 2008.

"Kelantan is the last bastion of our Islamic administration," said party official Osman Mustapha, one of many delegates who voiced anxiety about the party's future during its annual congress earlier this month. "If our enemies seize this state, there will be nothing left, no hope for us. All our members will be heartbroken."

An election loss for the Islamic party, known by its acronym PAS, would also be a blow to other conservative Islamic movements in Asia, which see the party as a bulwark against Western influence over Islamic societies.

The party's ebbing popularity is evidence that the Kelantanese may have had enough of religious rhetoric, some political observers say.

"Even now, PAS realizes it cannot keep harping on religion, because that strategy is outdated," said Mohamad Agus Yusoff, a political science professor at the National University of Malaysia. "People in Malaysia want to talk about economic progress. Malaysians would not want to see the country become like Lebanon or Iraq for the sake of religion."

Dissatisfaction over Kelantan's lack of prosperity under the Islamic party surfaced in the last elections in 2004, when it barely clung to power. The party has 23 of 45 seats in Kelantan's legislature, a one-seat majority over the National Front.

"Things would pick up if PAS loses power," said a vegetable seller who asked to be identified only by her first name, Kamariah. "Right now, Kelantan is not receiving much help from the (federal) government to improve facilities and bring more employment, simply because we're an opposition-controlled state."

Kelantan's future will also be keenly watched for possible ripple effects on a decades-old Islamic insurgency in neighboring southern Thailand.

Many Thai Muslims have relatives in Kelantan and some even hold dual citizenship. Because of such links, Kelantanese have long been sympathetic to the Thai struggle. The PAS government, though, has been careful not to allow the state to become a training ground for Thai insurgents.

Despite being politically coveted, Kelantan remains a backwater dotted by small, aging mosques and wooden village houses.

Many residents toil on rubber, rice and palm oil plantations. The few dozen textile, wood and electronics factories bear scant testament to Malaysia's reputation as one of Southeast Asia's most industrialized economies.

Kelantan's average annual economic growth of 3.3 percent between 2000 and 2005 was the most lethargic nationwide.

Its poverty rate of 10.6 percent in 2004 was nearly double the national figure, according to the most recent government statistics. Average household monthly income of 1,829 ringgit (US$538; €400) was the lowest among Malaysia's 13 states.

When PAS took over in 1990, it limited liquor sales, prohibited lotteries and betting outlets, banned nightclubs and rock concerts, fined Muslim women for not wearing headscarves in workplaces and enforced public segregation of the sexes through measures such as separate check-out lines for men and women in supermarkets.

Such rules made Kelantan a cultural anomaly in Malaysia, where nearly 60 percent of the country's 26 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. In Kelantan, about 90 percent of the 1.5 million people are Malay Muslims.

With its stated aim of implementing Islamic governance, PAS has virtually no hope of gaining national power because it frightens non-Muslims and the largely moderate Muslims in other states.

PAS also tried to introduce an Islamic legal code that prescribed amputation of limbs for thieves, death by stoning for adulterers and whipping for Muslims who consume alcohol, but the laws were blocked by the federal constitution, which guarantees secular laws.

Still, PAS has not lost all support.

"Many of us in Kelantan are poor, but we're proud that we have not strayed from religious values," said taxi driver Ramli Ibrahim. "As long as PAS rules, we can be sure the focus is Islam, instead of material wealth that causes corruption elsewhere."