KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared on Monday to have weathered a violent electoral reform protest and may still call elections as early as June, but a huge turnout by protesters showed a strong groundswell of opposition to his government.
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 percent 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 ($265 - $300) per month.
Protest leaders and the country's opposition blamed the police for an overzealous response and dozens of witnesses gave evidence of police brutality after officers fired tear gas and chemically-laced water at the unarmed protesters.
"When I walked passed a pack of police officers on both sides, they punched and kicked me," Wong Chin Huat, one of the leaders of the Bersih electoral reform movement, told the news website Malaysiakini.
"I fell down. When it looked like I was going to faint, they stopped hitting me."
The government and state-controlled media were quick to put the blame on protesters for the clashes, which began after some demonstrators broke through police barriers blocking them from entering the city's Merdeka (Independence) Square.
"A Show of Hooliganism," read a headline in the pro-government New Straits Times, which carried pictures of yellow-shirted protesters throwing sticks at police and kicking police cars. Najib said that police had been the main victims of the violence, but that any allegations of police brutality would be investigated.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was acquitted on charges of sodomy in January, denied inciting the protesters, saying the government was trying to deflect the blame for not fully addressing demands for electoral reforms.
Saturday's protest saw the biggest turnout of the three demonstrations the influential Bersih movement has staged since 2007. Police estimated the crowd at about 25,000 but some news sites put the number at 100,000 or higher.
"The huge turnout has sent one significant signal -- there is a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the government and it is now boiling over," said Yang Razali Kassim, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Nick Macfie