KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon in clashes with thousands of protesters demanding electoral reforms on Saturday, raising the risk of a political backlash that could delay national polls which had been expected within months.

Riot police reacted after some protesters among the crowd of at least 25,000 tried to break through barriers, in defiance of a court order banning them from entering the city's historic Merdeka Square. They fired several dozen tear gas rounds, sending the protesters scattering through nearby streets.

Protesters also battled with police at a train station nearby, throwing bottles and chairs at officers who responded by firing tear gas rounds. Most of the protesters had dispersed about an hour after the violence began, but several hundred remained and were still taunting police.

The violence could carry risks for Prime Minister Najib Razak if it is seen as unjustified, possibly forcing him to delay elections that must be called by next March but which could be held as early as June. Najib's approval rating tumbled after July last year when police were accused of a heavy handed response to the last major electoral reform rally by the Bersih (Clean) group.

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