Malaysian police allowed tens of thousands of opposition supporters to rally inside a stadium in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, avoiding a repeat of earlier street demonstrations when officers clashed with marchers.
Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party People’s Alliance secured permission for the “People’s Uprising Rally” to be held in Merdeka Stadium near the center of the capital, abiding by a ban on street protests introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government last year. About 50,000 people attended the event which concluded without any arrests, Zainuddin Ahmad, Dang Wangi district police chief, told reporters.
“It was good that they managed to have a peaceful protest,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said by phone today. “The police played a non-partisan and professional role in allowing the opposition to express itself. This should set the tone for the upcoming election campaign.”
Police fired tear gas and arrested 512 people when a non-governmental organization campaigning for fair elections staged an illegal outdoor demonstration last year. Attendance at last weekend’s rally fell short of target of the 1 million people set by Mohamad Sabu, deputy president of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, before the event. Najib must dissolve parliament by April 28 for polls.
“We want a free and fair election,” Anwar said in a statement released to coincide with the rally. “You have a vote and I have a vote. No one should steal our votes.”
The government is pleased that the opposition rally passed off peacefully, an unidentified government spokesman said in an e-mailed statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on Jan. 12. The event underlines the government’s commitment to freedom of assembly and the strength of Malaysia’s democracy, the spokesman said, according to the statement.
Indelible ink will be used for the first time to help prevent voter fraud and Malaysians overseas will be allowed to cast postal votes. Even so, some other demands by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections lobby group, which staged last year’s rally, have yet to be met.
The People’s Alliance comprises Anwar’s multiracial People’s Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party. Some Pan-Malaysian members support the implementation of Islamic law, while the Democratic Action Party has primarily ethnic Chinese members.
The U.S. Embassy, located 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the stadium, issued an e-mailed circular on Jan. 11 urging U.S. citizens to exercise caution and avoid the area.
Najib saw his approval rating fall to 63 percent in December from 65 percent in November, the lowest since he received 59 percent support in August 2011, the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research said Jan. 10. The survey showed those happy with the government at 45 percent compared with 48 percent in October.
The 59-year-old is entering the election season at a time of comparative economic strength. While many developed countries have faltered, Malaysia’s gross domestic product growth has exceeded 5 percent for five quarters with domestic demand countering a slowdown in exports.
The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index closed at a record on Jan. 7, having risen more than 11 percent over the past year. The gauge was 0.1 percent higher at 9.15 a.m. today. Najib cut income taxes and extended handouts for the poor in his 2013 budget announced in September.
His National Front coalition is fighting to hold on to power after governing Malaysia since independence in 1957. In the last election in 2008, the ruling parties lost the two-thirds majority in parliament they had held for four decades. Anwar’s People’s Alliance today controls four out of the country’s 13 states, including Selangor and Penang.