(Corrects month in third paragraph of story first published Jan. 12.)
Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition coalition held a rally in Kuala Lumpur today, testing official tolerance for public dissent ahead of a general election due early this year.
“We want a free and fair elections,” Anwar said in a statement to Malaysians released publicly. “You have a vote and I have a vote. No one should steal our votes. We shall work to defend our votes.”
Anwar’s three-party People’s Alliance secured police permission for today’s “People’s Uprising Rally” in Merdeka Stadium near the center of Malaysia’s capital, abiding a ban on street protests introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government last year. Police fired tear gas and arrested 512 people when a non-governmental organization campaigning for fair elections staged an outdoor rally in April.
Coalition supporters today streamed into the stadium, which has a capacity of 30,000. Organizers aimed to attract 1 million people to the rally, Mohamad Sabu, deputy president of the Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party, said in a telephone interview Jan. 11.
‘The message is clear,” Anwar said. “Government cannot be about ignoring the voices of the people.”
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 yesterday urging U.S. citizens to exercise caution and avoid the area.
Najib, who must dissolve parliament for elections to be held by April 28, 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.
Najib, 59, 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. 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 onto 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.
The opposition planned to use today’s rally to lobby for policies including clean elections, free education, boosting mother-tongue languages and returning oil royalties to the states, according to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s website.
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