Malaysia's Najib weathers protest, may still call early poll

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared on Monday to have weathered the weekend's violent electoral reform protest and may still call elections as early as June.

Running battles between protesters and police in Kuala Lumpur highlighted growing tensions in the Southeast Asian nation as it prepares for close elections that could threaten the ruling coalition's 55-year grip on power.

Najib has been seen as leaning towards an election in June - well before his mandate expires next March - but his appeal to middle-class voters may suffer if accusations of police brutality against the around 25,000 protesters gain traction.

However any political fallout appeared to be limited because protesters were at least partly to blame for the violence, which resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gave a speech at the rally organised by the independent Bersih movement for election reforms and was accused by some ruling party members and state media of inciting the crowd to break through police barriers.

"That proves that Bersih was hijacked and that Anwar was trying to use it as an election tactic," Nur Jazlan Mohamed, a member of parliament for the ruling United Malays National Organization, told Reuters. He said Najib would still be inclined to call elections early, possibly in June.

Najib's approval rating, at a lofty 69 per cent in the most recent opinion poll, tumbled last year after a heavy-handed police reaction to a previous Bersih rally for electoral reform.

Since then, he has reached out to middle-class and younger voters by abolishing some colonial-era security laws and pushing limited reforms of an electoral system the opposition says favours his long-ruling National Front coalition.

He is due to announce Malaysia's first national minimum wage for private sector workers on Monday night - the eve of Labour Day - in another sign that elections are approaching four years after historic opposition gains in 2008.

Government sources told Reuters last month the wage would be set at between 800 and 900 ringgit (S$326 and S$367) per month.

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