PRIME Minister Mahathir Mohamad has fanned speculation of an early general election, warning Malaysia's political opposition would soon face a day of reckoning.
Mahathir's remarks at a rally of his ruling party came just hours after the head of the largest opposition party was hospitalised with chest pains. Supporters said Fadzil Noor, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, was in stable condition today.
Speaking to 15,000 cheering supporters on the outskirts of Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir said that the ruling National Front coalition - which has had a recent upswing in popularity - was prepared to hold elections before the deadline in November 2004.
"The opposition parties should be afraid, because their time will come soon," Mahathir said in the nationally televised speech. "To the opposition parties, the people and issues that you have exploited are no longer relevant in our country."
Mahathir's governing coalition lost ground to an opposition alliance in a 1999 general election, a year after Mahathir fired his popular former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, amid economic upheaval and protests stemming from the Asian financial crisis.
Anwar is currently serving 15 years in prison for corruption and sodomy. He claims to be the victim of a conspiracy to keep him from challenging Mahathir for power, a charge denied by the government.
Malaysia's government has regained popularity since the September 11 terror attacks by arresting scores of suspected Islamic militants allegedly linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Leaders of this Muslim-majority country have also strengthened their rhetoric against the main opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which they accuse of breeding Islamic extremism.
The opposition suffered a shock late yesterday when the Islamic party's president, Fadzil, suffered sudden chest pains and was rushed to intensive care at a hospital in Terengganu state, about 450km northeast of Kuala Lumpur.
Doctors diagnosed Fadzil with an abnormally low level of sugar in the blood, and with possible angina, chest pains linked to an insufficient supply of blood to the heart, said Hatta Ramli, a senior member of the Fadzil's party.
Fadzil was conscious and in stable condition, Hatta said.
Doctors believe Fadzil was overworked from a hectic schedule, which included sharing a podium with Mahathir at a public forum on Wednesday - a rare meeting of the two leaders, who vie for support among Malay Muslims, the largest ethnic group in this country of 23 million people.