Speaking at a hastily convened press conference on Wednesday, Abdullah asked people to understand "the issues affecting our country objectively".

 

"2004 was a special election and it was extraordinary. I pray that BN will get at least two-thirds of the votes in the upcoming election," he said.

 

"My hope is that during the voting, nothing untoward will happen – there will be no disturbances or trouble that will affect the voting process."

 

Early vote

 

Voting must be held within the next 60 days at a date to be fixed by the election commission.

 

Analysts say elections could be as early as the first week of March, citing the government's previous record of allowing only a two-week campaign period.

 

The government's term expires only in May 2009, and some commentators say the early date was to prevent Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, from contesting.

 

Anwar, whose wife Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim heads the opposition Keadilan party, was sacked and jailed in 1998, and is barred from politics until April this year.

Since riding a wave of optimism in 2004, Abdullah's popularity rating has plunged from 91 per cent to 61 per cent last December, according to Merdeka Center, a research group.

 

Since then, he has been criticised for failing to deliver on key election promises like eliminating corruption in business and politics.

 

More seats 

 

The government crushed a street protest by
ethnic Indians last November [Reuters]
The 11th general elections will see 222 seats contested due to the creation of new constituencies. Assemblies in the states and federal territories will also be contested.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the multi-racial coalition's main component which Abdullah heads, holds 200 of the 219 seats in parliament.

 

The three main opposition parties – DAP, PAS and Keadilan - hold 12, six and one seat respectively.

 

Opposition leaders say they expect a substantial vote swing away from the ruling coalition.

 

Kamaruddin Jaafar, the Keadilan secretary-general, said the opposition will see a favourable swing in popular votes this time around.

 

"… especially among the non-Malays, who are very unhappy with the economic situation, crime rate and the overall lack of direction that Abdullah's leadership has shown," he told AFP.

 

Losing support 

 

Abdullah has said that the BN could lose the previously staunch support from ethnic Indians after unprecedented protests late last year against the government's discriminatory policies.


Five Indian activists who organised the rallies have been jailed under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial.

 

Abdullah's election announcement which falls during the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration period was criticised by Lim Kit Siang, the parliamentary opposition leader from the DAP.

 

"I think it shows a disregard and insensitivity of the diverse cultures and religions in the country," he told the AFP.

 

UMNO has also been criticised for holding its annual general assembly during the Deepavali festival celebrated by Malaysia's minority ethnic Indian community. 

 

Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, a political analyst from the National University of Malaysia, expects the BN to do well "but not as well as last elections".

 

"The last election was based on expectations – this one is based on his performance in the last four years."