Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has ended his country's long-running guessing game by dissolving Parliament and setting the stage for parliamentary elections by early December.

The election--with the date to be announced Friday--will mark the first time Mahathir must face Malaysian voters since he fired and then arrested his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges in September 1998. He apparently is hoping that an economic turnaround in Malaysia, following last year's recession and the imposition of capital controls, will overcome widespread anger over the Anwar episode.

Anwar's arrest, and his subsequent emergence from his prison cell with a black eye caused by a police beating, galvanized Malaysia's divided opposition and became a rallying cry for Malaysians tired of Mahathir's 18-year rule.

With Anwar's sodomy trial continuing, his wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, has taken up the banner of his cause, leading the new National Justice Party, which will be making its electoral debut. She said today she welcomed the election.

Announcing the dissolution of parliament at a televised press conference today, Mahathir appeared relaxed, even cheerful, as he bantered with reporters. "The government has decided to dissolve Parliament from tomorrow . . . in order to enable general elections to be held," said Mahathir, 73, who was flanked by officials of his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party.

Most analysts said the elections would be Mahathir's toughest. His National Front coalition, with UMNO as the major partner, is likely to win, since it controls all the machinery of government and has decades of experience in campaigning. But the opposition is expected to make major inroads, perhaps denying the ruling coalition the two-thirds majority it has enjoyed for more than 30 years.

Some analysts have said Mahathir decided to call the election now, instead of waiting until after Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, in December, because of the addition of 650,000 new voters onto the rolls in January. Many believe those younger voters would be more likely to support opposition parties because of the Anwar case.

CAPTION: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad faces united opposition.