Mahathir calls snap poll as reformers join forces

THE MALAYSIAN Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, called a general election yesterday in a sudden announcement which will pit Asia's longest- serving elected leader against a growing movement for political reform.

"The government has decided to dissolve parliament from tomorrow in order to enable general elections to be held," Mr Mahathir said yesterday after a day of rumours in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The government's five-year term lasts until next summer, and Mr Mahathir recently played down speculation that he would take advantage of the improving economy to call an early poll. Mr Mahathir has led Malaysia since 1981 and has won four previous elections at the head of the Barisan Nasional (National Front), a coalition of multi-ethnic parties dominated by his own United Malay National Organisation (Umno). But the sacking and arrest last year of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, created waves of unrest in Malaysia and galvanised a previously divided opposition.

"I don't care if I am popular or not," said the 73-year-old Prime Minister, after his announcement. "What is important to me is that this country gets a good government. I don't care if I go down in history as a good guy or a bad guy. What is important is what is achieved."

The date of the elections will be announced later in the week, but they are likely to take place by early December at the latest, and possibly at the end of this month. Barisan Nasional holds 166 of the 192 seats in the lower house of parliament, which it has dominated since Malaysia became independent from Britain in 1957.

For all its recent gains, the opposition is unlikely to come out victorious, but it will be aiming to make as large a dent as possible in the government's huge majority.

The arrest of Mr Anwar, his conviction on corruption charges, and his ongoing trial for alleged homosexuality, have brought together opposition parties which previously had little in common. His supporters insist that the charges were fabricated in order to prevent him mounting a leadership challenge to Mr Mahathir.

Tens of thousands of people turned out throughout the country in rallies supporting Mr Anwar, and there were violent demonstrations on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. As a devout Muslim, Mr Anwar has the sympathies of the biggest opposition group, the Islamic party Pas. As a sworn enemy of his former mentor, Mr Mahathir, he also has the backing of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), dominated by ethnic Chinese. Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, has also established a party, which will campaign in his name during the election.

The DAP leader, Lim Kit Siang, attacked the early dissolution of parliament as "an act of desperation" by the government.

"It's an attempt to evade accountability as the opposition had raised many pertinent questions on corruption and abuse of power,'' he said.

Mr Mahathir's authoritarian style increasingly grates on young and educated Malaysians. Newspapers are discreetly controlled by the government and publish almost no direct criticism of its policies or leaders. A draconian Internal Security Act has been used to detain without trial hundreds of people accused of "subversion". Opposition leaders accuse the police and courts of collusion with the government, and insist that Mr Anwar is not receiving a fair trial.

The charge was born out after his arrest when the blindfolded Mr Anwar was beaten black and blue by the chief of police. The incident caused dismay among international leaders, and sullied Malaysia's reputation as one of the most efficient and dynamic of the south-east Asian states.