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Friday, 26 November, 1999, 14:59 GMT
Eyewitness: Battle for the Islamic vote
Pas flags in Kelantan Islamic party flags are flying high in Kelantan

By Christopher Gunness in Kelantan

Malaysia's Snap Election
As Malaysians go to the polls on Monday, the eyes of politicians and voters alike will be on the north-eastern state of Kelantan; the only one of the country's 13 states in the hands of the opposition.

Since 1990 Kelantan has been ruled by the Islamic Party of Malaysia, Pas. In this election Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has vowed that the National Front coalition, headed by his United Malays National Organisation, will take the state back.

But with the Malay community deeply divided by the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, Pas has sensed the opportunity to gain some ground.

Umno officials meanwhile have been playing up the dangers of what they say is the insidious Islamisation that Pas rule has brought to Kelantan.

They have warned that if Pas is not deprived of its solid majority in the state, the consequences for secularism - in a country where about 55% of the population is made up of Muslim Malays - could be dire.

The national press, loyal to the government line, has backed up Umno's efforts to demonise Pas' version of politicised Islam with articles predicting the introduction of strict Islamic law, public floggings, the repression of women and limb amputations for criminals.

Islamic state

Umno officials argue that a vote for Pas will pave the way for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to the rest of Malaysia.

Women attend Pas meeting Few women in Kelantan say they fear further Islamisation
True, Pas officials willingly admit that ultimately they want to establish an Islamic state in Kelantan - including the introduction of sharia law - raising in the minds of outsiders the spectre of a mini Iran or Afghanistan.

But in Kelantan, as in the rest of the so-called Islamic world, the interpretation of the Koran has its own roots in the specific local culture and character.

In main market in the state capital, Kota Bharu, most of the stalls are owned and run by women.

Almost all of them wear veils, but these brightly coloured garments, accompanied as they were with make up and ostentatious jewellery, are worn more like fashion accessories than symbols of Islamic oppression.

And when I talked to the women, I couldn't find a single one who felt disturbed by the prospects of an Islamic state, or who seemed remotely worried that Islam would rob her of any fundamental rights.

Umno's fears

The owner of the local Avon cosmetics shop told me she backed Pas and wasn't concerned by recent comments by the Kelantanese Chief Minister, Nik Aziz that suggested he didn't approve of make-up.

Dr Mahathir Dr Mahathir has appealed to Umno voters to stick with the party
One of the few women I met in Kelantan who did suggest that Islam was oppressive was, I discovered, out campaigning for the leading Umno candidate.

But it does appear that behind the alarmist rhetoric lies real fears among Umno about its position in the northern states.

Pas has worked determinedly since the last election to consolidate its position in Kelantan and, most worryingly for Umno, it now has its eyes on the neighbouring state of Terengganu.

There Pas holds seven of some 39 seats in the state assembly and although the conservative nature of Malays means change is naturally resisted, the mastermind behind the Pas campaign there, Mustaffa Ali, clearly has considerable standing.

When I met him on the campaign trail, he said he was confident of taking the state from Umno and that in the long term Pas could make inroads into the Umno support base across the country.

But should this worry Malaysia's Chinese and Indian minorities, who together make up more than a third of the country's population?

For the time being, the answer appears to be no.

Secular counterbalance

Anwar supporter The Anwar crisis split the Malay Muslim community
Pas has for the first time joined in alliance with other opposition parties to campaign under a joint manifesto.

Its three partners in what is known as the Alternative Front all espouse secularism and provide a counterbalance to some of the more fervent elements within Pas.

In addition the chances of a Pas victory in Terengganu are possible - but slim - while the prospects of major gains elsewhere in the country are even more remote.

So it seems for the moment at least, that the spectre of an Islamic state in Malaysia, enforcing strict shariah law remains little more than a political tool in the hands of Umno designed to scare the electorate and split the opposition alliance.

But if Pas does make significant gains in the general election, the debate about Islam versus secularism will undoubtedly intensify.

Christopher Gunness is a presenter on the BBC World Service programme East Asia Today
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See also:
11 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Party guide: Malaysia's opposition alliance
15 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Malaysia's electoral showdown

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