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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 18:46 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Analysis: Malaysia's electoral showdown

The fall-out from the Anwar case could yet damage the prime minister

By BBC News Online's Joe Havely

A little over a year ago Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - Asia's longest serving ruler - seemed likely to be swept from power on an unprecedented wave of popular discontent.

Malaysia's Snap Election
The chant of "reformasi!" (reform) that toppled Indonesia's President Suharto from power in May 1998 quickly spread to the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

What sparked this outpouring of protest was the sudden dismissal - amid a torrent of sleazy allegations and counter-allegations - of Dr Mahathir's deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

[ image: Under pressure: Dr Mahathir faces a key test of his popularity]
Under pressure: Dr Mahathir faces a key test of his popularity
For the opposition this was Malaysia's Black September.

Now, with the announcement of snap elections, the Malaysian people will finally have their say on the Mahathir government.

It will be the most hotly contested electoral battle in decades and, in the personality-driven arena of Malaysian politics, it will be a referendum on the leadership of Dr Mahathir himself.

Dominant position

[ image:  ]
Dr Mahathir seems confident that he has ridden out the storm.

He says his Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is well on track to retain its two-thirds majority in parliament.

That dominance gives the government the ability to change the constitution - a privilege the opposition says it will seek to deny them in the next parliament.

They will have a fight on their hands.

Strict rules on electoral procedure and rigidly enforced public assembly laws mean it will be hard for the opposition to make any kind of impression.

[ image: Calls for reform spread from nearby Indonesia to Malaysia]
Calls for reform spread from nearby Indonesia to Malaysia
Dr Mahathir's party, the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) - one of 14 members of the Barisan coalition - has held power for 42 years.

During that time it has built up an unrivalled network of patronage, giving it access to a level of funding and influence that other parties can barely dream of.

The government also retains a firm control over the media. State radio and TV has said it will not carry party messages during the campaign period - only what it calls "information" about the government's work.

Quick on the draw

As a result, in the words of one observer, the Barisan government has virtually exclusive access to the three key Ms of Malaysian politics: money, media and the machinery of government.

[ image: Turning up the heat: Government symbols were attacked after the Anwar verdict]
Turning up the heat: Government symbols were attacked after the Anwar verdict
Opposition parties have also complained that a quick election - with just nine days of campaigning before the actual vote - means they have little time to get a campaign up and running.

So after months of hints and rumours that an election was imminent, what made Dr Mahathir choose his moment now?

One reason is the state of the economy, which, after a lacklustre performance stemming from the Asian economic crisis, is showing signs of getting back on its feet.

It is more than a coincidence that, on the day the Malaysian parliament was dissolved, government economists revealed that the quality of life for Malaysians has shown "dramatic improvement" over the past 18 years.

Dr Mahathir - who has been in office for 18 years - has justified his policies by pointing to the well-being of the economy. Observers say he will be counting on these latest signs of recovery to help him win the election.

Last month the government also unveiled a tax cutting budget - a move the opposition denounced as a transparent effort to win votes ahead of an election everybody knew was imminent.

Student pressure

[ image: Dr Mahathir is relying on signs of economic recovery to boost votes]
Dr Mahathir is relying on signs of economic recovery to boost votes
But it is not just the state of the economy which has prompted his dash to the polls.

By moving now, 650,000 new voters scheduled to join the electoral register in January, many of whom are displeased at the treatment meted out to Mr Anwar, will be ineligible to vote.

The government and Umno in particular are well aware of a growing political consciousness amongst Malay students.

The last time Malaysia's universities saw such political activism was in the 1970s when, as a young, passionate student leader, Anwar Ibrahim himself led a series of anti-government protests.

[ image:  ]
Few doubt that Dr Mahathir will win the election - even his opponents concede they have no chance of unseating him.

Nonetheless the opposition is stronger than it has been in years.

Groups and parties once deeply divided by issues of race and ideology been united by the fall-out from the Anwar case and for the first time have joined forces to campaign under a joint manifesto.

They still have many differences to overcome, although for the time being these have been swept to one side.

But with a broad swathe of Malaysia beginning to question standards of justice and fairness under the current government, they have at least the opportunity to make a noticeable dent in Dr Mahathir's political prestige.

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