Malaysians will vote this month on the future of recent reforms by Abdullah Badawi, the new prime minister, after a snap election was called yesterday.
The election will also determine whether Malaysia, one of the world's most progressive Muslim countries, is shifting towards a more conservative religious stance espoused by the main opposition group, Islamic Party of Malaysia (Pas).
An election date will be announced by Monday but the poll is widely expected to be held on March 20.
Mr Abdullah, who succeeded Mahathir Mohamad in October, has launched an extensive reform programme, including a high-profile anti-corruption campaign, a crackdown on government-linked crony capitalism and a probe into police abuses.
But the election poses a risk to Mr Abdullah if the government should lose ground to Pas. His reforms have upset vested interests in the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant governing party, and any electoral setback could provoke a party revolt against him.
Attention will focus on state government elections, considered a more accurate barometer of the public mood, rather than the national parliamentary elections in which the long-ruling National Front coalition government, led by Umno, is almost certain to gain a two-thirds majority.
Pas controls two of Malaysia's 13 states and if it gains control of more, Mr Abdullah could be in trouble.
But analysts said Mr Abdullah enjoyed several advantages in calling an early election, which was not due until November.
He still enjoys a honeymoon period with the public. His reforms are popular, the economy is set to grow by 6 per cent this year and share prices are rallying.
Muslim Malays provide a 52 per cent majority of registered voters in the multi-ethnic country of 25m people, which could limit the national appeal of Pas.
Mr Abdullah's government enjoys strong backing from the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, which fear Pas will impose tough Islamic criminal laws if it gains power.
Opposition politicians are expected to criticise as a whitewash a recent police investigation that cleared a company controlled by Mr Abdullah's son of complicity in smuggling nuclear parts to Libya.
The election campaign will be fought mainly in five ethnic Malay-dominated states, most of them rural and poor, in the east and north of the country. The National Front wants to regain control of the Pas-governed states of Kelantan and Terengganu, while Pas hopes to gain the state governments of Kedah, Perlis and Pahang.
National Front control of parliament was assured last year when 26 seats were added in states dominated by Umno, raising the number of National Assembly members to 219. Voters will select 505 state legislators in 12 of Malaysia's 13 states.
Pas gained support in the last general election in 1999 because of public anger over the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim, the popular deputy prime minister.
Pas has sought to improve its appeal by criticising the government for corruption, but Mr Abdullah's reforms have blunted this issue.
Parent site: "The World At Your Fingertips"