By Niluksi Koswanage
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters calling for fair elections converged on Kuala Lumpur's centre on Saturday for a major demonstration that will test the Malaysian government's reformist credentials and may affect the timing of national polls.
Police have shut down much of the city centre and closed off the historic Merdeka (Independence) Square with barriers and barbed wire, enforcing a court order that the protesters should not enter the symbolically important site.
The Bersih (Clean) group that is leading the protest says it will obey the ban but will march as close as possible to the square, raising the possibility of a repeat of violent clashes that marred Bersih's last major protest in July 2011.
"Now it looks like we will have to fight for our right to gather at Merdeka Square as well as fight for free and fair elections," said Muhammed Hafiz, a 28-year-old store clerk who was preparing to join the protest.
The protest, which organizers hope will draw 100,000 people, presents a delicate challenge for the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, possibly affecting the timing of elections that he is preparing to call as early as June.
A violent response by police would risk alienating middle-class voters and handing the advantage to the opposition in what is shaping up as the closest election in Malaysia's history, possibly forcing Najib to delay the poll date.
But Najib must be mindful of conservatives within his own party who are wary that his moves to relax tough security laws and push limited election reforms could threaten their 55-year hold on power.
Last July's rally, more than 10,000-strong, ended in violence when police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters, drawing criticism of a heavy-handed government response and sending Najib's popularity sliding. His approval rating has since rebounded to 69 percent, according to one poll.
Government controlled newspapers printed the court order barring protesters from the square on Saturday. Police helicopters buzzed overhead but there were no signs of water cannon or riot police, suggesting the government may take a softer approach than last time.
Bersih, an independent movement whose goals are backed by the opposition, has a history of staging influential rallies as Malaysians have demanded more freedoms and democratic rights in the former British colony that has an authoritarian streak.
The July protest was a watershed moment for Najib, prompting him to promise reform of an electoral system that the opposition says favors the long-ruling National Front coalition.
The National Front is trying to recover from its worst ever election result in 2008 when it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament, giving the diverse, three-party opposition led by former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim real hope of taking power.
Najib has replaced tough security laws - ending indefinite detention without trial - relaxed some media controls, and pushed reforms to the electoral system that critics have long complained is rigged in the government's favor.
The opposition says the reforms are mostly cosmetic, aimed at winning the crucial middle ground without risking deeper changes that would threaten the coalition's grip on power.
A bipartisan parliamentary committee set up by Najib this month issued 22 proposals for electoral reform, including steps to clean up electoral rolls and equal access to media.
But the government gave no guarantee that any of the steps will be in place for the next election. Bersih says it is "wholly unsatisfied" with the proposals and has called on the country's Election Commission to resign.
It says the proposals do not meet most of its key demands, including lengthening the campaign period to at least 21 days from the current seven days. It also wants an independent audit of the electoral roll and international observers at polling stations. Bersih and opposition parties say they have unearthed multiple instances of irregularities in voter rolls, including over 50 voters registered at one address.
(Additional reporting by Angie Teo and Siva Sithraputhran. Writing by Stuart Grudgings, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)