KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A massive street rally demanding electoral reforms in Malaysia raised questions Sunday about whether the long-ruling coalition government will delay calling elections in the face of such a strong show of force by the opposition.
Police used tear gas and chemical-laced water Saturday against some 50,000 people and arrested more than 450 at the demonstration. Officials said three demonstrators and 20 police were injured, and all those arrested were released by Sunday.
The rally was held to pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition — which has been in power for 55 years — to overhaul what the opposition and civil groups call biased electoral policies before the next polls are held.
Elections do not need to be held until mid-2013, but speculation had previously been rife that Najib may dissolve Parliament next month and seek a new mandate in June.
However, the protests — the second mass rally in 10 months — could rattle Najib's confidence and prompt him to delay calling polls, especially since the last election delivered the biggest opposition gains in Parliament ever.
"The rally is a way for many Malaysians to show that they are no longer suppressed. It has whipped up anti-government sentiment, and this could encourage Najib to call for later elections," said Ong Kee Beng of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The country's largest English newspaper, The Star, said in an opinion piece Sunday that the more likely time for polls would be in the first week of September.
While the rally had reinforced anti-government vote in urban areas, it may not tip the scale in favor of the opposition, said James Chin, political science lecturer with Monash University in Malaysia. Najib's battleground will be in rural areas, which account for about two-thirds of Parliamentary seats, he said.
National police spokesman Ramli Yoosuf said Sunday that 471 people were arrested but all have been released. It was not immediately clear if they would be charged later with any offense. Ramli also said the crowd size, earlier estimated at 25,000, doubled to near 50,000 at its peak.
Demonstrators wearing yellow T-shirts, waving banners and chanting slogans poured into downtown Kuala Lumpur, massing near a public square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.
"A lot of things are not done right and people are getting fed up. We have to take a stand and do something for our future generation," businesswoman Kimberley Yang, a mother of three, said before the crackdown.
Najib's popularity dipped after a similar rally last July by some 20,000 people was dispersed by tear gas.
He has since instituted a raft of reforms intended to build support — including overhauling decades-old security laws — and agreed to new electoral regulations that include using indelible ink to cast ballot to curb multiple voting.
But activists said the measures were inadequate, alleging that the Election Commission is biased and that voter registration lists are tainted with fraudulent names. They also sought longer election campaigning periods and changes to ensure citizens living abroad can vote.
Saturday's demonstration remained peaceful for several hours, until a small group appeared to suddenly breach the police barriers. Authorities responded by firing tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said police acted "with utmost restraint," but opposition leaders and rights groups said the excessive use of tear gas and heavy-handed tactics were unjustified.
Malaysia's Bar Council, which deployed 80 monitors during the rally, said police fired tear gas directly at the crowd in a way that appeared to be designed to attack them, rather than letting them disperse quickly.
It said its teams also witnessed several acts of police brutality, such as assault of arrested persons.
Najib has accused opposition activists of trying to create disorder to sully the government's image.
"They are not concerned about fair and clean elections. It's all about politics and taking over (the government), he was quoted as saying by national news agency Bernama.
The National Front, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, suffered its worst performance in 2008 elections, when it lost more than a third of Parliament's seats amid public complaints about corruption and racial discrimination.