At its national congress in the northern state of Kota Bharu, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) called for former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim to lead the country's opposition alliance as part of changes aimed at attracting moderates and non-Muslims.

PAS is reeling from defeat in the 2004 general elections, which slashed its presence in parliament from 27 seats to five and which lost it its former heartland of Terengganu state.

PAS support had rocketed during the past few years of former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad's leadership as it capitalised on the political fallout of Mahathir's incarceration of his former deputy on sodomy charges.

But with the departure of Mahathir from the political limelight and the release of Anwar from jail, PAS is now back where it used to be - on the fringes of the system.

Poll setback

"Definitely there is a call for change. Delegates want leaders who can deliver success. They want economic development," said Shamsul Amir Baharuddin, a sociology lecturer at the National University of Malaysia.

"In their eyes, the old guard has failed and now they need the young to lead," he said, adding that unless reforms are introduced quickly, PAS may no longer even appeal to Muslims who account for 60% of Malaysia's 25 million population.

"Definitely there is a call for change. Delegates want leaders who can deliver success. They want economic development. In their eyes, the old guard has failed and now they need the young to lead"

Shamsul Amir Baharuddin,
National University of Malaysia

The poll setback showed that PAS's goal of turning multi-cultural Malaysia into an Islamic state has limited popular support, compared to the so-called moderate version of Islam championed by the ruling National Front coalition.

With the winds of change blowing, PAS Secretary-General Nasharuddin Mat Isa, a UK graduate who is seen as a moderate, beat incumbent conservative cleric Hassan Shukri in a three-corner fight for the post of deputy president, the top position up for grabs in leadership elections held on Sunday.

The elections were expected to see a handover to the "Young Turks" who want to inject new ideas and dump conservative rhetoric, and all three vice-president posts were won by party moderates who are not clerics for the first time in PAS's history.

Senior clerics criticised

Husam Musa, an economist and loyalist of PAS spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, scored the highest number of votes followed by activist Mohamad Sabu and motivational speaker Hassan Ali, who was an incumbent.

PAS wants Anwar Ibrahim to
lead the opposition coalition

Also for the first time in the party's 51-year history, these young professional figures openly criticised the party's senior clerics at the annual meeting.

Salahuddin Ayub, an outspoken PAS youth chief, said on Thursday that the party must open its membership to non-Muslims in the minority Chinese and Indian communities if it wants to become a viable alternative government.

Taking aim at the revered council of senior clerics, the party's highest decision-making body, he accused them of poor leadership and said PAS needed a complete makeover.

Many feel PAS has widely alienated voters with what is being perceived as its narrow Islamic agenda.

Call for change

Kamaruddin Jaffar, a 53-year-old PAS central committee member and lawmaker, said the senior clerics have failed to advance the party's strength and influence, and there had been a mood for change since the last polls.

"Being the party election year, a sense for change is strong, with the senior clerics facing attacks," Kamaruddin said.

PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang
says the party is at a crossroads 

But the lawmaker said that because of PAS's "institutional system", the clerics would continue to hold power and influence party direction.

Shamsul said the old guard consider themselves a cut above the rest, adopting a policy of "male-dominated exclusivity" which serves to keep the young progressive leaders and women candidates out.

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang said during the congress that the party was at a critical crossroads and called for the charismatic Anwar to lead the charge to dislodge the coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Anwar is currently banned from politics until April 2008, the same year the next general elections are expected to be held.