Malaysian opposition rally draws huge crowd

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim urged voters to oust the country’s long-ruling government as tens of thousands of supporters gathered Saturday in a show of force ahead of coming elections.

At least 50,000 people crowded into an iconic stadium in the capital Kuala Lumpur where independence was declared in 1957 and tens of thousands more thronged surrounding areas as the opposition effectively kicked off its campaign.

“We plead for you to give us a chance so that the people’s voices will become the voices of the leaders of this nation,” Anwar told the crowds as he denounced what he called the government’s misrule and corruption.

“The time has come to bury the unfairness of this government,” he declared.

The Barisan Nasional coalition has controlled Malaysia since independence from Britain and was never seriously threatened until Anwar’s opposition alliance handed the ruling bloc its worst election showing ever in 2008.

Premier Najib Razak must face elections no later than June in a contest that is shaping up as the nation’s most intriguing yet, with the opposition seeking to harness the winds of change that powered the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East.

There was no hint Saturday of the violence that marred the country’s last major anti-government rally in April.

That rally, for reform of an election system that the opposition and other critics say is skewed in the government’s favour, drew tens of thousands to the streets but degenerated into clashes between demonstrators and police.

Authorities were criticised for a response widely seen as heavy-handed.

Critics say the electoral system is rife with voter-roll fraud and other pro-government bias, and complain the government has not followed through on a pledge to address alleged unfairness in time for the polls.

The government denies the system is biased.

“If you cheat in this election, the people will rise to overthrow you,” Anwar warned in comments directed at the country’s Election Commission, which is widely seen as pro-government.

Anwar was deputy premier until his sensational ouster in 1998 amid a row with with strongman ruler Mahathir Mohamad, and was convicted on sodomy and corruption charges widely viewed as a political fix-up.

His casting out has invigorated a once-ineffectual opposition.

He now heads a tripartite alliance of his own multi-ethnic party, an influential Islamic party, and a third party dominated by ethnic Chinese.

Muslim Malays make up more 60 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people.

The government derides the opposition as a marriage of convenience incapable of governing, saying Malaysia needs Barisan Nasional’s steady hand. It also touts efforts by Najib to spark the economy and reform oppressive laws.

Under Barisan Nasional, Malaysia became one of Southeast Asia’s economic success stories and enjoyed decades of political stability, while facing recurring allegations of corruption and rights abuses.

The opposition accuses the scandal-prone government of massive graft, thuggish rule, and racial fear-mongering in the multi-ethnic nation in order to stay in power. It also says the economy is also losing its competitive edge against regional rivals.

“Our government is so corrupt. The government should listen to us. They need to reform,” said rally participant Azlan Abu Bakar, 29, who travelled from the eastern state of Terengganu for the gathering.

By Julia Zappei (AFP)

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