A part of the deeply conservative Malay heartlands, Kelantan has been ruled by the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) since 1990, with re-elections in 1995, 1999 and 2004. It is currently one of five Malaysian states not ruled by the Barisan Nasional coalition after the 2008 elections.
Almost all PAS members are Malay Muslims, as are about 95% of Kelantan's population.
The state of Kelantan is almost synonymous with PAS, as Kelantan has been under PAS rule for two lengthy periods. (Neighbouring Terengganu has also been under PAS rule twice, but for short periods each time [1959–1962 and 1999–2004].) The first period of PAS rule in Kelantan began two years after independence, in 1959, and lasted 18 years (1959–1978); the current period is 18 years long and counting.
The interval between the two periods of PAS government, when the Barisan Nasional Party ruled the state, was only about 12 years (11 March 1978 to 21 October 1990). In the 1990 General Election, PAS returned with an overwhelming victory, winning all the 39 State and 13 Parliamentary seats. The victory was achieved through the PAS-led opposition coalition, called Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah (APU). In the following General Election in 1995, PAS won again, though with a reduced majority. PAS won big in 1999, due in significant part to Malay anger over the treatment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim by then–Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and other officials of the national government. However, PAS very nearly lost control of Kelantan, retaining it with only a 1 seat majority, in 2004, when Barisan Nasional, under the new leadership of Abdullah Badawi following Tun Mahathir's retirement, won by a landslide nationally. However, after the Malaysian general election, 2008, PAS regained the two-third majority of seats in the state assembly.
For years, PAS has attempted to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic Law on Kelantan. It has succeeded in imposing certain social strictures such as single-sex queues in supermarkets; separate public benches for men and women; and limiting entertainment centres to prohibit "salacious behaviour". Proposals to institute punishments such as amputation of limbs for thievery and execution for blasphemy (collectively known as Hudud Law), however, have been blocked by the national government on constitutional grounds.
One of the most controversial steps PAS has taken in Kelantan is to place tough restrictions or outright bans on the traditional performance of syncretic Malay theatrical forms, such as Wayang Kulit, Makyong, Dikir Barat, and Main Puteri. Modified versions without the traditional references to Hindu dewa–dewi and traditional Malay hantu (spirits or ghosts) and otherwise in keeping with orthodox Islam are, however, tolerated in certain cases. Also restricted are public performances by women: Aside from Quran recitals, such performances are completely banned if any men are in the audience. While PAS has maintained that these steps were essential to promote Islam and put an end to immoral behavior among the Muslim population, many consider them an act of defiance against Barisan Nasional's laws — which are more tolerant or laxer, depending on one's viewpoint — and also a major loss to Malay traditional arts.
There have been allegations that the Federal Government deliberately withholds funding for development projects in Kelantan as one way to pressure the voters of Kelantan into voting Barisan Nasional back into the State Government.