KUALA LUMPUR - Parti Islam seMalaysia (PAS) spiritual leader Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat died at the age of 84 last night after years of battling prostate cancer.
His death is the second loss of a key figure for the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition alliance in three days after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was put behind bars on Tuesday.
"The Honourable Tuan Guru passed away at his home at 9.45 at night," his official Facebook page said, using the honorific widely used in the Islamic party to refer to their top religious scholars.
He had been in critical condition since the end of last year, when floods raged across the East Coast including Kelantan, where he had been chief minister for 23 years.
Datuk Nik Aziz stepped down after the 2013 elections - when his health had already started to fail - is widely credited with moving PAS towards the centre, turning it from a niche party that operated in conservative Malay areas, into a national force that stood equal to its two partners in the opposition coalition.
In 2008, the opposition denied the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) its customary two-thirds super-majority of Parliament for the first time in history, and PR was formed. But PAS and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) often tussled over religious issues and many times appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is the third component of the opposition PR alliance.
Anwar's influence is largely seen as the unifying factor for the ideologically disparate alliance, but Mr Nik Aziz and his DAP counterpart Lim Kit Siang often showed the political will and appetite for compromise that their colleagues did not.
However, illness - largely due to the fourth-stage cancer, for which he underwent chemotherapy in 2012 - saw Mr Nik Aziz fade from the frontlines, and troubles within PR have hit fever pitch in his absence.
Mr Nik Aziz was widely respected across the political divide, and his death triggered an outpouring of support for his family - his son Nik Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz is PAS deputy youth chief.
"I was saddened to learn that Nik Aziz has returned to the mercy of God," Prime Minister Najib Razak, who had visited the PAS leader when he was recovering in hospital recently, said on Twitter. "Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat's passing is a great loss to nation," DAP's Mr Lim said of his PR colleague.
The opposition had been due to hold a leadership meeting today to decide on Anwar's replacement to lead PR after he was jailed for five years following a controversial sodomy conviction but called it off immediately after Mr Nik Aziz's passing.