The leader of Malaysia's hard-line opposition Islamic party has died after suffering complications related to diabetes. His death could escalate an already-contentious political debate about the role of Islam in Malaysian society.

Fadzil Noor died at a hospital in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, early Sunday morning after failing to regain consciousness following a heart bypass surgery two weeks ago.

The 65-year-old Muslim politician had been in poor health - having suffered from diabetes and hypoglycemia for nearly two decades.

Mr. Fadzil had led the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party - known as PAS - since 1989 and was instrumental in consolidating Muslim Malay support for the party, which made gains in the 1999 elections.

Those gains were attributed, in part, to a public backlash against the leader of the ruling United Malays National Organization Party (UMNO) - Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who fired and then jailed his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

Observers say Mr. Fadzil's death could be a major setback for PAS in the next elections. That is because Mr. Fadzil was considered the moderate voice of PAS who distanced himself somewhat from the hardline Muslim clerics within the party. In recent months, fundamentalist clerics have alienated many Malaysians with their demand to turn Malaysia into a strict Islamic state.

Mr. Fadzil said recently that he disagreed with the idea of imposing harsh Islamic laws across Malaysia's multi-religious and multi-ethnic society for fear of causing unrest.

It is not yet clear who will succeed Fadzil Noor as the leader of PAS. But many observers expect the party's deputy president and religious scholar, Abdul Hadi, to take over the post.

Abdul Hadi is considered an Islamic firebrand whose hardline views - political observers say - could further alienate Malaysia's more secular Muslims and its substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian population.

Mr. Fadzil's death comes just one day after Prime Minister Mahathir retracted his decision to relinquish all government and posts he held in the ruling coalition.

Mr. Mahathir reversed himself just one hour after he announced his resignation saying he was bowing to the wishes of his supporters who begged him to stay and lead the party in the elections.

The prime minister is widely expected to call elections a year early in 2003 to take advantage of the political uncertainty and to reverse the gains PAS made in 1999.