Thousands march on capital centre in Malaysia election protest

KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands of protesters calling for fair elections converged on Kuala Lumpur's centre on Saturday for a major demonstration that will test the Malaysian government's reformist credentials and may affect the timing of national polls.

Police have shut down much of the city centre and closed off the historic Merdeka (Independence) Square with barriers and barbed wire, enforcing a court order that the protesters should not enter the symbolically important site.

The Bersih (Clean) group that is leading the protest says it will obey the ban but will march as close as possible to the square, raising the possibility of a repeat of violent clashes that marred Bersih's last major protest in July 2011.

"Now it looks like we will have to fight for our right to gather at Merdeka Square as well as fight for free and fair elections," said Muhammed Hafiz, a 28-year-old store clerk who was preparing to join the protest.

The protest, which organisers hope will draw 100,000 people, presents a delicate challenge for the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, possibly affecting the timing of elections that he is preparing to call as early as June.

A violent response by police would risk alienating middle-class voters and handing the advantage to the opposition in what is shaping up as the closest election in Malaysia's history, possibly forcing Najib to delay the poll date.

But Najib must be mindful of conservatives within his own party who are wary that his moves to relax tough security laws and push limited election reforms could threaten their 55-year hold on power.

Last July's rally, more than 10,000-strong, ended in violence when police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, drawing criticism of a heavy-handed government response and sending Najib's popularity sliding. His approval rating has since rebounded to 69 per cent, according to one poll.

Government controlled newspapers printed the court order barring protesters from the square on Saturday. Police helicopters buzzed overhead but there were no signs of water cannon or riot police, suggesting the government may take a softer approach than last time.

Bersih, an independent movement whose goals are backed by the opposition, has a history of staging influential rallies as Malaysians have demanded more freedoms and democratic rights in the former British colony that has an authoritarian streak.

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