Malaysia's premier called for fresh elections on Wednesday, kicking off a campaign likely to be dominated by racial issues as religious tension rises in the southeast Asian nation.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters he had received consent from the country's king to dissolve parliament, effective Wednesday, and call for fresh elections.
"The king has signed the declaration of dissolution of parliament today," Abdullah told a news conference at his imposing green-domed office in Malaysia's administrative capital.
The country's election authorities would decide the nomination and polling dates, he added.
Analysts expect the ruling coalition to win, although with a reduced majority. The vote is crucial for the opposition, with the future of its de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim, at stake.
Earlier, a source close to the prime minister told Reuters the Election Commission would decide on the poll date in the coming days, but it was likely to be held within the first 10 days of March.
Polls had not been due until May 16, 2009, and Abdullah gave no reason for calling an early election, but analysts had expected him to seek a fresh mandate before the trade-dependent economy begins to slow and inflation picks up steam.
A March election would also cut out opposition leader Anwar, who is barred from standing for public office until April because of his past criminal conviction, though Abdullah denies this influenced the timing of the poll.
Badawi saw the king this morning and the king gave his consent to dissolve parliament, the source close to the prime minister said.
"The PM actually wanted to dissolve parliament next week but the Agong (king) is leaving overseas this evening for a private holiday, so last night he (the prime minister) changed his mind," the source said.
In power since 2003, Abdullah is trying to shore up his own popularity, which has been dented by public anger over rising prices, street crime and an influx of cheap foreign labour.
Abdullah, who took over from Mahathir Mohamad, led his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to a record victory in 2004 elections on a pledge to clean up government.
But he said recently the coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957, was unlikely to repeat its 2004 performance amid growing unease among ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.