Malaysia’s biggest Islamist party, long a whipping post for the country’s liberals, is finding itself newly popular with former rivals and estranged allies as it emerges as a potential kingmaker in upcoming general elections.

Due to its hardline brand of Islam, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has traditionally had an uneasy relationship with the country’s non-Muslim communities, such as the ethnic Chinese and Indians, but the deep influence it has enjoyed with the majority Malay community since it was founded in 1951 could make it a deciding force in the national polls, widely expected this year.

Rural Malay seats are likely to be the key battleground in those polls, in which two coalition parties – the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) and the Pakatan Harapan (Hope Coalition) – will be the main contenders.

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Leaders of both coalitions are working behind the scenes to curry favour with the PAS, as the Islamist party gears up for a rally this weekend in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, in a show of strength to convince the public it is still an influential political player.

The PAS left the Hope Coalition in 2015 and became independent after a fellow coalition member, the secular Democratic Action Party, protested against its campaign to introduce a Muslim penal code called hudud. A senior leader of the Democratic Action Party – which is popular with ethnic Chinese voters – recently signalled a willingness to mend ties with the PAS, while former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, long known for his criticisms of the PAS’ ultra-conservatism, has also appeared to change tack.

Mahathir’s party, the Malaysian Indigenous People’s Party, or Bersatu, is allied to the Hope Coalition and is now leading negotiations for an electoral pact with PAS in an effort to oust the National Front and its scandal-tainted chairman, Prime Minister Najib Razak. But Najib, too, is thought to be working behind the scenes to influence the PAS, leading to questions over where its loyalties lie.

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Will the PAS side with its estranged former allies in the Hope Coalition? Or will it go it alone in the elections, splitting support for the opposition and thereby helping keep Najib in power?

A reconciliation with the Hope Coalition might prove difficult. The 2015 spat was not the first time the alliance had broken down. The first split came in 2002, when the Democratic Action Party took issue with the PAS policy of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state.

Even when the two were stablemates, relations were often testy and the alliance was described by detractors – including Mahathir – as a “marriage of convenience” between two incompatible partners. Hardliners in both parties rued the compromises involved in presenting a common opposition front.

Since the 2015 breakup, and the takeover of the PAS by hardliners led by Abdul Hadi Awang, the party has underlined its independence, returning to its roots and calling for the establishment of an Islamic state with hudud and other sharia laws at its core.

“The dominant faction in PAS now sees the party as being stronger when it is independent, when it does not compromise its principles and when it holds strictly to its original principles,” political analyst Hisommudin Bakar said.

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“This is their main offer to Malaysian voters, that they are a principled party. The problem is whether Malaysians these days are necessarily attracted to ideologically driven parties,” said Hisommudin, the executive director of think tank Ilham Centre.

This insistence on principles did not stop PAS president Abdul Hadi from sharing the stage with Najib at two high-profile Islamic-themed events (a dinner for the Al-Azhar University alumni association in 2015 and a Rohingya solidarity rally in 2016). Those appearances came despite the cloud following Najib, who is at the centre of a multibillion ringgit fraud probe at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Investigators have alleged that US$681 million in transfers from the fund were made to Najib’s personal bank accounts in 2013. He says these were “personal donations” from the Saudi royal family and has denied any wrongdoing.

Leaders from Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – a Malay supremacist party that is the biggest player in the National Front coalition – claim Najib’s meetings with Abdul Hadi were aimed at rapprochement in the name of Malay-Muslim solidarity. However, there have been suggestions (consistently denied by the PAS) that the two parties – historical rivals for the ethnic Malay vote – are seeking an alliance.

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“Absolutely not. We are 100 per cent going to fight Umno in the next general election,” PAS election director Mustafa Ali said.

Mustafa stressed that PAS was committed to being an opposition party and was pursuing talks with Hope Coalition members that aimed to ensure only one opposition candidate stood against the National Front in each constituency. Some 222 parliamentary and 505 state legislative seats are to be contested.

Kadir Jasin, a Bersatu supreme council member, confirmed talks were ongoing with PAS representatives and said PAS activists appeared keen to work with the Hope Coalition.

Yet a PAS party source said senior leaders such as Abdul Hadi had signalled they wanted to be independent of either coalition.

If so, that could play into the hands of the National Front. In what many see as an attempt to scupper reconciliation between the PAS and the Hope Coalition, the Umno-owned daily newspaper Utusan Malaysia has recently played up stories of PAS accusing the Democratic Action Party of interfering in Islamic affairs in the island city state of Penang.

“It is in Umno’s interest that PAS remains independent and not part of the [Hope Coalition],” the PAS source said.

This is because historically, the National Front has always prevailed in contests where the opposition vote is split between multiple candidates.

However, Hisomuddin at the Ilham Centre, said multi-candidate contests would not necessarily benefit the National Front. “Our surveys show that undecided voters or ‘fence sitters’ make up about 40 per cent of the electorate in any constituency. These voters are interested in coalitions that are Malaysia-centric and are strong enough to form a government.”

That in turn might affect the popularity of the supposed kingmaker PAS, as such voters were “unlikely to choose an independent party with one ideology”.■