Malaysian riot stirs fears of opposition clashes

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 14 (Reuters) A recent riot in Malaysia has raised fears of more clashes ahead of widely expected early elections as parties jostle for position and the opposition fights curbs on rallies.

The opposition, long ignored by the government-controlled mass media, is struggling to get its message across to Malaysian voters and political analysts say the ruling coalition will seize every chance to thwart their opponents.

''So, given that scenario, there will probably be future standoffs,'' said Lee Hock Guan, of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ''Campaigning is very crucial to winning hearts and minds.'' Changes to electoral rules have progressively cut down the opposition's room for manoeuvre, from the banning of open air rallies to curbs on holding indoor political meetings outside of election campaigns, Lee told Reuters.

Last week, two members of the Islamist opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) were seriously wounded when police opened fire to disperse rioters at a rally demanding electoral reform in the northern state of Terengganu.

''They do not want our message to get across to the masses,'' said PAS official Mustafa Ali, who called the violence the first of its kind in Malaysia. ''They will try every avenue to stop us.'' PAS, a major opposition force in Malaysia's northeast until it lost elections in 2004, wants to turn the multi-religious country into an Islamic state.

Malaysia's opposition parties are split along racial lines, but are united in complaining the electoral system is rigged against them.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is widely expected to call general elections by early next year, called the riot a desperate attempt by the opposition to gain political mileage.

''Now they see that the state has developed in a short period and they are trying to do nasty things to tarnish the government and the police. This is their brand of politics,'' the New Straits Times newspaper quoted Abdullah as saying.

One analyst said the government could exploit similar events to paint the opposition as unable to rein in supporters predisposed to violence, and so burnish its own image.

''I would not be terribly surprised to see further such incidents just to keep everyone on edge, 'justify' additional curbs, and make the ruling coalition seem the only safe choice yet again,'' said US academic Meredith Weiss, a specialist in Malaysian society and politics.

Although Abdullah has permitted wider media coverage of contentious issues of race and religion than did his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad during his 22-year tenure, his government moves swiftly to condemn views it disapproves of.

The greater leeway for comment looked more like a strategy to co-opt political opponents in ways that do not threaten Abdullah's ruling coalition rather than commitment to fostering vigorous public debate, one analyst said.

''Malaysia is at a fork in the road,'' said Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Australia.

''The real question is how genuine is the willingness to allow debate if the views expressed are allowed to be expressed only so long as the government is not uncomfortable with them.'' The government could make things tougher for the opposition by denying it permits to hold public meetings, or by launching vicious attacks on it in newspapers, radio and television, political analyst Chandra Muzaffar said.

''As the elections get closer, I see the ruling coalition imposing more and more restrictions, more and more hurdles, in the path of the opposition, and this has often happened in the past,'' Muzaffar added.

Reuters SKB GC1146

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