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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Reformists were elected to main posts in Malaysia's main Islamic party on Saturday pledging to widen the party's appeal beyond a traditional ethnic Malay base to boost the opposition's chances of making inroads in the next general election.
The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) broke with a decades-old tradition to vote in non-clerics to a slew of top posts, which could soften the party's image as a stern moralist bent on establishing an Islamic state.
PAS is the largest party in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's coalition but its resolve to impose Islamic criminal laws has often been seen as a stumbling block in its bid to win over non-Muslims, who make up more than a third of the population.
Husam Musa, who has pushed to moderate the PAS stance on a theocratic state, won one of the three vice-president posts and vowed to reach out to non-Muslim minorities.
"Muslims and non-Muslims want the same thing, a team of PAS leaders who can perform and offer fair and appropriate policies for a multi-racial Malaysia," said Husam.
Party grassroots activist Mohamad Sabu, 56, won the deputy presidency, defeating the conservative incumbent and another cleric to become the likely successor to the party's conservative president, Abdul Hadi Awang, who was returned unopposed.
More than 1,000 party delegates -- men in white skullcaps and women in headscarves, seated in separate sections of an assembly hall -- erupted in loud cheers of "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) as the results were announced.
"This slate of reformers were voted in at a time when Anwar is facing increasing attacks by the ruling coalition, and it means that PAS will step in to make a bigger contribution to the opposition ahead of the general election," said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Singapore Management University.
Anwar is fighting accusations that he sodomised a former male aide and more recently, that he was caught on film having sex with an unidentified woman, providing ammunition to Prime Minister Najib Razak's government as it seeks to discredit the opposition after it posted strong wins in a recent state poll.
Sodomy is an offence in the mainly Muslim country and Islam also frowns on extra-marital sex.
Anwar has painted the charges as a government attempt to undermine the opposition but the allegations could hurt his reputation in the eyes of conservative Muslims.
"The ulama (clerics) are good teachers but now we need a different team who can bring PAS to victory in the general election and take power," said Muhammad Khalil Idrus, 34, a clerk at a construction company and PAS member.
PAS holds 23 of 222 seats in parliament and is the largest opposition party with about a million members. The ruling coalition has tried for years to persuade it to abandon the opposition but PAS has repeatedly rejected the offer.
Prime Minister Najib's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is the other party which commands the backing of the country's Malay Muslims, who form 55 percent of the country's population of 28 million.
Najib does not have to call a general election until 2013 but strong economic growth and an opposition weakened by Anwar's legal troubles have fuelled speculation that he may call snap polls early next year.
Editing by Liau Y-Sing; Editing by Robert Birsel