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Just how much has Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin's profile grown in the past 13 months? He was a relative unknown on March 17, 2008, when he was appointed Perak mentri besar. Today, he is PAS's rising star and a symbol of its possible future where the stigma of Islamic extremism no longer retards its political ambitions. At the time of writing, the new Bukit Gantang MP has collected vice-presidential nominations for the June party polls from all three divisions that have had their general meetings so far. The Feb 5 toppling of his government, which has led to a gripping constitutional crisis, has paved the way to a paradigm shift within the party, that for decades, suffered under the perception of Islamic extremism, rendering it "unelectable" to non-Muslims, in the words of research chief Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad.

Dogged by the constant controversy over its espousal of hudud, which prescribes punishments such as amputation of limbs for offences like robbery, and an Islamic theocratic state, Nizar's overwhelming popularity with non-Malays due to his moderate and inclusive stance may further open the floodgates for PAS if he is elected into the vice-presidency. With the startling success of Nizar in sweeping the non-Malay — 85 per cent of Chinese in the state constituency of Kuala Sepetang voted for Nizar — votes in the April 7 Bukit Gantang polls, PAS now has a clear path from being a Malay belt party, to a truly national and mainstream one. But whether it chooses to embark on this journey is a question that will only be answered in the June muktamar in Shah Alam.

Observers have long spoken of two main factions existing within the party. The side supporting closer ties with Umno, led by president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, are labelled the ulama faction, while those who support Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are tagged the Erdogans because of the opposition leader’s close ties with the Turkish leader. The former is synonymous with a more conservative Malay Muslim view of the party's objectives while the Erdogans, who have the blessing of spiritual leader Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, believe that Islamic principles can complement an equitable multicultural society. Nizar, although not a member of any faction, clearly shares the sort of moderate views espoused by the Erdogans.

Modest, as usual, Nizar preferred to analyse circumstances as an "opportunity for PAS's true colours to emerge" and with Erdogan man Datuk Husam Musa set to take the step up from vice-president to deputy president, the post-June Islamist party could very well be the sort of partner that PKR and DAP can finally be comfortable with. Husam has so far been reluctant to signal any intent to contest for the No. 2 post but it is understood that like Nizar, he will respect the party's wishes if it decides to push for his candidacy. Dzulkefly told The Malaysian Insider that he is confident that the party is beginning to take a more pragmatic view of how the party should operate, and step away from pure dogmatism that has in the past stopped it from making the sort of inroads with non-Muslims that it has managed to make in the past year or so.

"Of several candidates considered for Bukit Gantang, eventually Nizar was chosen as he was the most 'winnable' despite our studies showing there would be a reduction of Malay support. But the party understood that what was important was to win, so the party is now able to conceptualise its priorities differently," he said. Perak DAP chief Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham, who was Nizar's No. 2 in his 11-month-old administration, told The Malaysian Insider that PAS's inclusive policies, if continued and affirmed, would create greater cooperation within Pakatan Rakyat. "For PAS to be a national party, it must continue with its open attitude," he said, adding that it would quash what he calls Umno's demonisation of PAS as a party of extreme ulamas (religious scholars). Ngeh's hopes may soon be realised as Nizar's candidacy as vice-president is not the only brow-raising trend in the nominations so far. While it is accepted that Hadi will retain the presidency uncontested, it appears that his deputy Nasharuddin Mat Isa has not impressed the grassroots.

Out of the three divisions, the ulama leader has only received one nomination, the same as Husam. But with heartland Malay division Temerloh nominating Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak instead, Nasharuddin could be in trouble. Indeed, developments so far will give PAS's Pakatan Rakyat partners some joy. Besides Husam's candidacy for No. 2, the favourites for vice-president are dominated by more moderate voices such as Youth chief Salahuddin Ayub, firebrand vice-president Mohamad Sabu and Nizar. For those who feel that a strong Pakatan Rakyat is crucial for the political future of Malaysia, the PAS muktamar, and not last month's Umno general assembly, may well be the highlight milestone for 2009.

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