Malaysian police said they will shut major roads and suspend public transportation into Kuala Lumpur's city center to thwart opposition backed activists, who vowed on Friday to press ahead with a banned rally for electoral reforms.
The escalated political tension presents a major challenge for Prime Minister Najib Razak's long ruling coalition ahead of general elections widely expected next year.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh announced late on Thursday that major roads into the city would be shut for 22 hours starting midnight on Friday, affecting bus and rail transit services. He said police have also obtained court orders to bar dozens of opposition and civic group leaders from entering the city's central business district on Saturday.
The atmosphere was tense in the city on Friday, with dozens of police officers patrolling unusually quiet streets and riot police trucks stationed at strategic locations. "The police plan to lock down downtown Kuala Lumpur is unprecedented since 1969 when racial riots occurred," said James Chin, a political science lecturer at Monash University in Malaysia.
Chin said the opposition alliance led by former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim hopes to receive a boost from the rally ahead of the national polls. He said two large anti-government rallies in 2007 helped Anwar's alliance win more than one third of the parliamentary seats in 2008 polls in the government's worst electoral setback.
"I think the government has overreacted by cracking down so harshly. There could be a blowback in the next general elections among urban voters," he added.
More than 200 people linked to Saturday's demonstration have been detained in the past few weeks. The rally's organizers, the Bersih coalition of 62 civic groups, insisted supporters would gather at a downtown stadium Saturday to demand changes in election laws to curb fraud, and urged Najib to call off the clampdown that "fits the style of dictators."
"No matter how badly we are repressed or prosecuted, the peaceful voice of the (people) will be heard in Kuala Lumpur come the 9th of July," it said in a statement on Friday.
Anwar, among those banned from entering the city, said opposition leaders would attend the rally. The restrictions make a large rally unlikely, but protesters may try to gather in small groups, political observers say. Bersih earlier this week agreed to move the rally to a stadium instead of marching through the streets after rare mediation by the king.
But a new dispute broke out after the government refused to let them use Merdeka Stadium in the city center, citing safety issues.
Activists hoped to draw 100,000 people for the country's largest political rally in four years. The opposition has long accused the ruling coalition of manipulating election results to maintain its nearly 54-year rule, but the government says current election laws are fair.
Authorities have accused Anwar of endorsing the protest to undermine the government. The mandate of the current National Front led government expires in mid-2013 but many analysts expect elections to be called next year amid signs that the opposition has lost momentum since the 2008 polls.