Malaysia’s government defended the country’s electoral system as free and fair after a massive opposition rally demanded further transparency in general elections due in months.
About 45,000 people joined the rally on Saturday by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party alliance in a downtown Kuala Lumpur stadium ahead of 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 polls.
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.
A government statement late on Saturday said the Elections Commission has taken huge strides to ensure free and fair polls, including using indelible ink for the first time to prevent voter fraud and allowing Malaysians living overseas to cast a postal vote.
It said the campaigning period has been lengthened and the commission is constantly scrutinizing the electoral roll to ensure it is accurate.
“Malaysia’s electoral system is stronger than ever,” the statement said.
Anwar appealed to the public to oust the National Front and vote in his opposition alliance.
“We ask for a chance so that the people’s voice will become the sacred voice in ruling this country,” he told the crowd.
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 but activists charge that voter registration lists remain tainted.
Police estimated Saturday’s crowd at around 45,000, but organizers 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.
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 says that only a change of government will resolve problems such as corruption and racial discrimination.
Most analysts believe Najib’s ruling coalition still have the upper hand in the elections because of its entrenched support in predominantly rural constituencies.