By Niluksi Koswanage and Razak Ahmad
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian police sealed off parts of the capital on Saturday in a bid to thwart a protest aimed at igniting an uprising against Prime Minister Najib Razak's government similar to the revolutions in the Middle East.
Police set up roadblocks in the city center and trucks mounted with water cannons were deployed to prevent the demonstration, which was planned by the opposition and an electoral reform group seeking greater transparency.
A massive anti-government protest could signal that the ruling National Front coalition was losing ground and may spur Najib to reconsider a snap election, which would delay political and economic reforms designed to put Malaysia back on the map for foreign investors.
A general election is not due until 2013 but Najib has not ruled out early polls, after economic growth accelerated to a 10-year high in 2010.
The Bersih, or Clean, group has vowed to bring together tens of thousands of supporters on Saturday afternoon for what could be the biggest anti-government demonstration since Anwar Ibrahim's sacking as deputy premier in 1998 triggered violent street rallies.
There was no sign of protesters, however, so far this morning. Pro-government media urged people to stay home.
"The government of the day is not perfect," the pro-government New Straits Times newspaper said in an editorial.
"But be sure of one thing: we don't solve problems on the streets. That's not us, nor our way."
After weeks of verbal war between the government and the rally's organizers, bus services into the city center were halted on Saturday, turning the usually busy tourist and shopping area into a ghost town.
Major street demonstrations are rare in this Southeast Asian country, but the rise of alternative media channels and a growing opposition voice are gradually creating a more vocal Malaysian public.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets at a November 2007 rally, which analysts said galvanized support for the opposition ahead of record gains in a 2008 general election.
Najib took power in 2009, and inherited a divided ruling coalition which had been weakened by historic losses in the 2008 polls. He has promised to restructure government and economy and introduced an inclusive brand of politics aimed at uniting the country's different races.
Najib's approval ratings have risen from 45 percent to 69 percent in February, according to independent polling outfit Merdeka Center. But analysts said recent ethnic and religious differences have undermined his popularity.
(Writing by Liau Y-Sing, editing by Miral Fahmy)