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