At least 45,000 people have joined a massive opposition rally in Malaysia’s largest city in a show of force ahead of key general elections due in months.
Police sealed off main roads in downtown Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, allowing protesters to march peacefully to a nearby stadium for the rally by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party alliance.
The rally focused on demanding further transparency in elections that must be held by June. The polls are seen a major test for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition after its dismal performance in 2008 elections.
The National Front coalition, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, lost more than a third of its seats in parliament to a resurgent opposition in 2008 amid public discontent over problems such as corruption and racial discrimination.
Anwar on Saturday appealed to the public to oust the National Front and vote in his opposition alliance in this year’s elections.
“We ask for a chance so that the people’s voice will become the sacred voice in ruling this country,” he told the crowd.
“Our government is so corrupt. The government should listen to us. They need to reform. For more than 50 years they have ruled Malaysia,” said Azlan Abu Bakar, 29, a rally participant who travelled from the eastern state of Terengganu for the gathering.
The rally tested Najib’s tolerance for public dissent after police used tear gas to quell two similar protests over the past year.
The protests have helped pressure the government to agree to new regulations to prevent people from voting multiple times and ensure fairer elections, but activists insist voter registration lists remain tainted.
Police estimated Saturday’s crowd at around 45,000, but organisers said more than 100,000 people showed up. The rally ended peacefully after more than three hours.
Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin reacted to the rally by saying the ruling coalition has brought peace and prosperity for all Malaysians.
“We have a good government and a good economy, so why do we need a change?” he was quoted as saying by the national Bernama news agency.
In a statement, the government said that it was “pleased” that the rally passed off peacefully.
“Today’s events underline the government’s commitment to freedom of assembly, and the strength of Malaysia’s democracy. The rally was facilitated by the Prime Minister’s political reforms, including the introduction of the Peaceful Assembly Act,” the statement said.
The government has intensified efforts to win back support over the past year with measures such as channeling more funds to the poor and abolishing security laws that were widely considered repressive. But the opposition insists that only a change of government will resolve problems such as corruption and racial discrimination.
Most analysts believe Najib’s ruling coalition will still have the upper hand in the elections because of its entrenched support in predominantly rural constituencies,