Malaysian Islamists turn to women in poll campaign

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Malaysia’s Islamist opposition party has chosen a record number of women as candidates for next month’s general election, as its tries to become a more inclusive force.

The Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), whose law-and-order policy calls for Islamic punishments such as stoning and amputation, released on Thursday the names of 13 women, including several doctors, in its list of candidates for the March 8 poll.

The party’s chief strategist, Dzulkifli Ahmad, said pro-government media had demonised PAS. He suggested the party’s ideal of an Islamic state should not be threatening to non-Muslims, who make up more than 40 percent of the population.

“We have been slaughtered, we have been demonised in the media because we talked about (an) Islamic state,” he said after the party named its 295 candidates for federal and state parliaments.

PAS is strong in Malaysia’s Muslim heartland, in the northeast of the peninsula, but has failed to extend its power base to the rest of the country, where non-Muslims are more numerous. It only started fielding women candidates in 1999.

Non-Muslims, mostly of Buddhist ethnic Chinese and Hindu ethnic Indians, are wary of PAS, though its policy on Islamic punishments would apply only to the Muslim population.

At the last election in 2004, PAS suffered heavy losses as Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a moderate Muslim, led the ruling multi-racial coalition to a landslide re-election.

Opposition parties now sense a chance to regain ground.

PAS’s goal is to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state, but it is shying away from this long-standing objective in its campaign and is instead saying Malaysia should become a “welfare state”.

In an election manifesto also released on Thursday, PAS called for state oil company Petronas [PETR.UL] to be put under parliament’s direct control, rather than the prime minister, and for lower petrol prices, free education and a national health fund.

“PAS will undertake to defend the well-being of the people and safeguard the interest of the nation through prudent management of the wealth and resources of the state and a balanced approach to development,” the manifesto said.

PAS President Hadi Awang, a turbaned Muslim cleric, said the policy was affordable given Petronas’s oil riches.

“The government can afford this, the nation will not go bankrupt,” he said.

The election pits PAS and two other opposition parties against the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has governed Malaysia in various forms since independence in 1957.

The ruling coalition is widely tipped to win again, but issues like rising prices and racial tensions are expected to cut into its majority.

Loo Kim Heng, 52, an ethnic Chinese telecoms worker, said he would not be voting for PAS on March 8, even if they promised to cut petrol prices and roll out generous welfare benefits.

“PAS doesn’t bother me,” he said as he sipped an iced coffee with friends at a Chinese restaurant outside the capital on Thursday.

“They say all sorts of things, but they don’t matter to me because I don’t think they can win power.” (Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Mathew Veedon)