Abdullah took over from veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad four months ago knowing he had to seek an early mandate to stamp his authority over the country, and over his own party too.

His strong stand for ethical governance and an anti-corruption campaign has been applauded at home and abroad, as he sought to re-take the high moral ground.

The Muslim preachers who lead Parti Islam se-Malaysia found an easy target for their barbs in Mahathir.

The former prime minister admitted his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition it leads, can do better without him.

"The BN will win big because the opposition cannot play on certain issues because the hatred towards me will no longer influence the people not to support the BN," Mahathir told journalists on Thursday evening.

"The time I chose to retire is very good timing," he said, according to state-run Bernama news agency.

Chinese, Indian vote

While the coalition clung on to a constitutionally key two-thirds majority in the 1999 election thanks to support from the large Chinese and Indian minorities, UMNO polled less than half the popular Malay vote.

Ex-deputy premier Ibrahim was
denied bail earlier this year

The humiliation of Mahathir's former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked and jailed in 1998 after challenging his leader, drove Malays into the arms of PAS and its ally Keadilan, the party led by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

PAS won two of Malaysia's 13 states, Kelantan and Terengganu, to form a stronghold in the northeast of the peninsula. The Islamists hope to sweep across the north this time out to take Mahathir's home state of Kedah.

"Based on the lastest information, Insh Allah (God willing), we can retain our seats as well as try to add more seats," PAS party president Abdul Hadi Awang said.

"Our target is retain Kelantan and Terengganu and capture Kedah and if possible Selangor, Perlis and Pahang as well," he told journalists at his base in Terengganu.

UMNO currently has 73 seats, PAS 26 and Keadilan five.

Redelineation of constituency boundaries and the addition of new parliamentary seats will probably favour the ruling parties in the election for 219 seats.