Islamic party PAS holding Malaysia's election key
Corruption and financial scandals dog nation's ruling coalition, positioning PAS as kingmaker
In downtown Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, the charismatic opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim led tens of thousands of people at a rally to call for the toppling of the ruling coalition that has been in power since Malaysia's independence in 1957.
Many turned out for what effectively was the start of the opposition's campaign for elections expected to be called by March.
While Anwar fronts the opposition alliance that includes his own multi-ethnic party, and a party dominated by Chinese Malaysians, it is a third party, the influential Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) that is emerging as the likely kingmaker.
In Malaysia, where Muslims and ethnic Malays make up the majority, the Muslim vote is crucial. The PAS, which draws inspiration from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, supports an Islamic state in contrast with Anwar's secular, nationalistic People's Justice Party (PKR).
The conservative segment of PAS wants to implement the Islamic criminal code called Hudud laws if it ever gains a two-third majority to change the country's federal constitution.
But realistically, it would be difficult for PAS to gain the number in the current situation.
Hudud laws provide for the chopping off of the hands of thieves. The death penalty is usually carried out by beheading.
"In Malaysia, we have the death penalty. What's the difference between death by hanging and death by beheading," said a young, male PAS supporter who declined to be named.
During the opposition rally on January 12, when about 80,000 people turned up, PAS supporters outnumbered its coalition partners when it mobilised its party faithful by the thousands from all over the country.
"I came here in a bus from Terengganu. It was organised for me by PAS," said Aminah, 25, a university student who travelled with friends. Asked whether she wants Hudud laws she said "yes."
"As a Muslim, it is our duty. I believe if there is Hudud law, everything will change for the better," Aminah said. "There will be no more corruption, more transparency."
The National Front has ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain. In 2008, it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time.
Prime Minister Najib Razak must face a general election no later than June. With elections looming, analysts say corruption claims and financial scandals involving government-linked individuals has further eroded National Front popularity.
The opposition is expected to make further gains in the coming elections and could even beat the ruling coalition.
The PAS' depth of reach among the Malay Muslim grass-roots, and the organisational skills, discipline and loyalty of its members and supporters, has spread beyond its traditional base in Kelantan, the state where it has ruled for 22 years.
"PAS is the oldest party, has the most supporters, is most well-organised and has the largest grass-roots reach," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive officer of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs, who is also a PAS member.
"Anwar's party is the youngest, but he is the leader of the opposition. So … PAS has actually made a lot of compromises."
Despite its dominance, its coalition partner regards PAS as an "equal partner", said DAP election strategist, Ong Kian Ming.
PAS' election performance is also crucial for the survival of its progressive factions who are in the minority, said Wan Saiful.
"The progressive faction of PAS believes in an Islamic state, but they also talk about human rights, democracy. If the progressive faction of the PAS does not do well, they will be kicked out and PAS will return to the state in which it was 10-15 years ago, when it was very conservative."