Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

PAS Supports Hudud; DAP Opposes It -- So What?

Written by johnleemk on 6:43:29 pm Sep 9, 2009.

I wrote this a few months back, but apparently forgot to publish this. I intend to write sporadically, so don't think this site is dead by any stretch — but don't expect daily or even weekly updates either. Enjoy!

The recent scandal concerning hudud laws is being blown up in the media as yet another sign of the tenuous nature of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition. There are two problems with this notion: the first is that we are holding our political parties to a double standard, since by this definition, Barisan Nasional is an equally untenable coalition. The second problem is that we are mistaking posturing — careful posturing, mind you — for serious policy. No federal government, Barisan or Pakatan, will ever approve hudud laws, and PAS knows this; they are pandering to their base, rather than making a serious proposal.

I find it quite funny that this notion of Pakatan being a marriage of convenience, and thus by nature unstable, carries such weight. Barisan was dismissed as a marriage of convenience originally, when the Independence of Malaya Party was the party to beat; we all know what happened after that. All political coalitions by definition will have some disagreement between their component parties; the true test of a coalition's staying power is whether it can govern effectively.

If we gauge the reliability of a coalition based on ideological coherence, why did we not toss Barisan out of power long ago? The members of each of the main component parties enjoy denouncing one another. In the wake of March 8, we have only seen Barisan fall apart even further, internal disagreements coming out into the open. There is zero ideological coherence within Barisan, but we accept them as a viable coalition because we know they can work together enough to govern in some way.

This expectation that political coalitions must by definition agree on all issues, or even all major issues, has little grounding in the political conditions in other countries with political coalitions. In a parliamentary government, the only thing that matters is that all MPs from the coalition agree to lend the government their support in votes of confidence and supply (the budget). Other than that, MPs are often free to disagree with their colleagues, and often do; in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Labour Party in Britain saw open disagreement among its MPs and the resignation of a Minister. Individual parties themselves are rarely united, even on issues as imperative as the question of sending young men and women to die in a war; why should we expect full or even major ideological coherence from a political coalition?

The truly important question for us to determine the political viability of Pakatan is whether PAS considers the issue of hudud law one big enough to break with the other component parties. Will PAS vote for a no-confidence motion against the government if a Pakatan-majority Parliament will not approve a bill enacting the hudud law? If PAS will not break ranks on a vote of confidence, then the hudud issue is not worthy of the brouhaha it has created.

And the reality is, PAS itself has promised it will do no such thing. Husam Musa, the PAS leader who made the remarks the press and pundits found so uproarious, is one of the most liberal men in the party; he would hardly commit himself or PAS to making the hudud issue one which they would break ranks for in a Parliamentary vote of confidence. And that is not what Husam did; he chose his words carefully.

In his speech, Husam told PAS members that the party would continue to push for the enactment of hudud law, and that they would succeed provided the other Pakatan parties agreed. That in itself should tell you everything: Husam and the PAS leadership are not idiots. They know hudud law would never pass muster with PKR, and certainly not the DAP. Saying that "we will push for hudud law, but it will only be enacted if we can get PKR and DAP to agree" is tantamount to saying "we will push for hudud law, but realistically, it's not happening."

While I disagree completely with the enactment of hudud law, PAS is perfectly within its rights to say this. Essentially what this means is that if a hudud bill comes up in Parliament, PAS MPs will vote for it. They make no promises regarding the votes of other Pakatan MPs, and I imagine the rest of Pakatan would either abstain or soundly vote down the bill. Saying that your party will support a particular law when it comes up for a vote is very different from saying that if it does not pass, you will quit the coalition.

In essence, this whole hudud issue has been blown out of proportion. Should we be worried about efforts to impose a religious code as criminal law? Yes. Should we take them seriously? Not until a party with actual power to get the law passed lays all its cards on the table and goes for broke.

The only real cause for concern I can see concerning the hudud issue is the apparent silence of PKR and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. I have never been satisfied with PKR's trying to appeal to all sides on the issue; when pressed on the issue of religion in particular, they have always insisted that we just refer to the Federal Constitution, without clarifying what they think the Constitution says. In this case, it seems Anwar has not even taken that basic step; he has kept a very obvious silence on the issue.

My guess is that Anwar's reading of the situation is that it does not warrant any more attention than it has already gotten, and that if he comments, it will only add fuel to the media's fire. I think that's a fair reading to take, and it makes sense: this is a non-issue. PAS and Husam have been very clear about how they approach the issue of hudud law, and Husam's remarks did not depart at all from any previous understandings of the issue.

PAS may support hudud law, and the DAP may oppose it, but MPs from both parties are free to vote their conscience. The unconscionable thing to do would be for Pakatan leaders to needlessly bring the whip down on MPs and make them vote one way or another on a hudud bill, if it ever got to Parliament. Without the whip, in a free vote, MPs would resoundingly reject the hudud law, and PAS knows this. PAS and the DAP have been reassuring their supporters that they would take the stances they have always held. That is not a cause for concern about the viability of Pakatan. As long as the basic understanding remains that they will agree to disagree on certain issues, the coalition can and will remain intact, just as Barisan has for 53 years.

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