Mahathir looks safe as he calls poll in Malaysia

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is expected to win a landslide victory in the general election to be held after yesterday's snap dissolution of the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house of parliament.

The date of the election was not announced, but it is expected to take place later this month. Dr Mahathir, whose Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition holds more than two-thirds of the seats in the Dewan Rakyat, is likely to give the divided opposition as little time as possible to organise.

When Dr Mahathir would choose to go to the polls - his government's mandate expires in October - has been the subject of speculation for months.

Dr Mahathir appears to have little to fear from his country's 13 million voters. The economy has grown by more than 8 per cent a year since 1987, transforming Malaysia from an exporter of raw materials into a rising industrial power. It is the world's leading producer of air conditioners and computer disk drives, and exports its Proton cars to Britain.

It has achieved prosperity despite a volatile mix of ethnic groups and religions, which in 1970 exploded into bloody riots between the Malays, who constitute roughly half the 18 million population, and the second largest group, the Chinese. To prevent further violence, the Barisan Nasional was formed from all the main political parties, instituted a policy of "positive discrimination" to enable Malays to play a bigger part in the economy and has held power ever since.

From 1981, when he became Prime Minister, Malaysian politics have revolved around Dr Mahathir, a thin-skinned nationalist whose frequent attacks on Western liberalism and on Britain, have made him one of Asia's best- known politicians. British companies were banned from bidding for Malaysian government contracts for eight months last year after the Sunday Times claimed one company had been prepared to offer the Prime Minister a bribe.

Dr Mahathir has dealt equally robustly with opposition at home, where the courts and the press have been bent to his will. Political opponents face detention and harassment, while the powers of traditional rulers have been curbed. A firm check has also been kept on Islamic fundamentalism.

In 1990, when Malaysia last went to the polls, the economy was just beginning to recover from recession and the government faced an opposition alliance of the Islamist PAS, the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party and Semangat 46, a breakaway from Dr Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which dominates the National Front. That did not prevent the government winning a two-thirds majority in parliament. Local issues may cost the Barisan Nasional a few seats this time, but the opposition parties are staging separate campaigns, and the PAS has recently suffered defections. The Prime Minister predicted yesterday that Kelantan, the only opposition-held state of the 13 in the Malaysian federation, would return to the government fold in simultaneous state elections.

The 69-year-old premier has had a heart bypass, but has given no sign of being ready to hand over to his 49-year-old Deputy Prime Minister and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim. Running as the "vision team", Mr Ibrahim and several politicians of his generation took all the posts they contested at the last UMNO congress, and might press the Prime Minister after the election to name a date for retirement.

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