Malaysian opposition to rally for poll reforms

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Malaysia's opposition on Wednesday received rare permission to hold a weekend political rally in a historic stadium, ahead of hotly anticipated elections due within months.

Opposition organisers say the gathering on Saturday at the 30,000-seater Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium), in the capital Kuala Lumpur, will focus on continued widespread criticism of a voting system seen as skewed in favour of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Senior opposition politician, Hatta Ramli, from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party said: "Not giving access to the stadium would have looked very bad for the government... They are doing the right thing and now we have a proper venue for the gathering. We want to make people aware of our demands for free and fair elections."

A rally for clean elections in April drew tens of thousands to the streets but degenerated into clashes between demonstrators and police, who were criticised for a response widely seen as heavy-handed.

The ruling coalition has controlled Malaysia since independence in 1957 but political observers say it faces its stiffest test yet in the coming polls against a formidable opposition and amid rising voter impatience with its rule.

Prime Minister Najib Razak must face elections no later than late June, but speculation of early polls is rife.

Najib's ethnic Malay-dominated ruling bloc faces an alliance comprising opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's multi-ethnic party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and a third party dominated by ethnic Chinese.

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

The trust that owns the stadium, where independence was declared 56 years ago, said in a statement it would allow Saturday's rally but that crowds must not exceed the venue's capacity.

The opposition often complains of hurdles in gaining permission for rallies, blaming ruling-party meddling, and had said in recent days that the stadium trust appeared to be snubbing its request, before approval came through.

Activists and the opposition say Malaysia's electoral roll is marred with irregularities, and complain that election officials and mainstream media are biased in favour of the ruling coalition.

The government set up a parliamentary panel to examine the complaints but critics said not enough concrete action has been taken.

The last elections in 2008 saw Barisan Nasional's worst showing ever, losing its traditional two-thirds parliamentary majority to the opposition.

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