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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A leading reformist in Malaysia's opposition Islamic party lost in an internal election on Saturday, an outcome that could leave the door open to the party cooperating with the ruling government.
Husam Musa, the 49-year-old vice president of the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the leader of the reform faction, was defeated in a three-way contest by the incumbent Nasharudin Mat Isa who enjoys the backing of the party's powerful conservative clerics.
PAS is one of three parties in the opposition People's Alliance, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Party delegates on Saturday voted in 10 reformers and eight conservatives to its 18-seat decision-making central committee.
The victory for Nasharudin, a 47-year-old Islamic law expert seen as favoured by the conservative party President Abdul Hadi Awang, comes as a blow to those who had hoped to see PAS consolidating more rapidly under the opposition People's Alliance, a move the defeated Husam had championed.
Nasharudin polled 480 votes to Husam's 281 and the third candidate's 261.
Nasharudin's win could also revive hopes by the main government party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), that it could win PAS over to form a pact that would stymie Anwar's bid to win power in elections that must be held by 2013.
UMNO, the lead component of the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia for over 50 years, vies with PAS for the Malay vote, and it suffered historic losses in national and state elections last year.
Part of Husam's team until he struck out in support of the conservatives, Nasharudin and Abdul Hadi took part in talks last year with UMNO to discuss the possibility of forming a unity government in two states.
Nasharudin reiterated PAS's commitment to stay with the People's Alliance and said there was no question of the party joining UMNO.
"But we will not shut the door to discussing with anyone whether political parties or with non-governmental organisations," Nasharudin told reporters after the results were announced, declining to elaborate on the extent of such discussions.
PAS, long tagged as a conservative Islamic party, did not have any appeal beyond its rural Malay strongholds until 2005 when the reformers started winning key posts in party elections on a pledge to moderate the party to broaden its appeal.
The strategy paid off, with PAS gaining support from mainly non-Muslim ethnic minority Chinese and Indians in general elections last year. Forty-five percent of the Southeast Asian country's 27 million population is non-Muslim.
PAS is the smallest party in the three-member Alliance holding just 24 of the opposition's 83 seats in Malaysia's 222-seat parliament, but is the biggest in terms of membership.
Observers note a growing assertiveness and awareness in PAS of its kingmaker role.
"The ulama (religious clerics) are still powerful ... the results show that PAS doesn't want to change too quickly, and the delegates voted for a deputy president who they felt more represented the party's interests," said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University, who was observing the polls.