This month the government of Najib Razak broke with precedent by allowing the opposition to stage a rally as election season kicks into gear.
The police said 45,000 people. Some politicians claimed it was 60,000. Other independent estimates were as high 150,000 individuals. Such squabbling over crowd numbers at political events isn't unique to Malaysia, but nonetheless likely sets the adversarial tone for the coming weeks or months until the next parliamentary election, due to be called by the end of April.
“We want a free and fair election,” said opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. “You have a vote and I have a vote. No one should steal our votes. We shall work to defend our votes.”
Two previous opposition-led rallies — in July 2011 and April 2012 — culminated in mass arrests after police fired tear gas and water cannons at tens of thousands demonstrators seeking reform of Malaysia's electoral system.
This time around authorities allowed the rally to take place at a football stadium in Kuala Lumpur where Malaysia's independence was declared in 1957. Everything went smoothly.
The government was generous with self-praise. According to the head of one governing coalition party, Gerakan president Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, “the rally shows that the government is serious about allowing a free and fair election and that it is serious about implementing its reforms in practice."
“The outcome underscores the sincerity and seriousness of the Najib-led National Front (BN) government in providing democratic space and ensuring peaceful assemblies for the people to exercise their rights and freedom with responsibility,” he added.
After the rally, which featured some of the same civil society groups that campaigned in 2011 and 2012 for electoral reforms, the government said that "Malaysia's electoral system is stronger than ever," pointing to recent reforms enacted to the voting system that some activists say are inadequate.
Although public rallies are a staple of democracies, former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi argued that the event was unnecessary. "They (the opposition) have done this too many times and every time, the crowd was not as large as they had hoped. There's no need to do this again. It only brings about negative impact.”
While Badawi might be easily-dismissed as someone out of touch with the country, his argument will likely be taken up by the government in the coming weeks.
More credibly, the government is likely to point to Malaysia's continued economic growth under its tutelage in order to win support. In November 2012 the World Bank said that Malaysia is expected to register a 5 percent real GDP growth in 2013. “Propelled by domestic demand, Malaysia’s economy is likely to weather a weak global environment,” the World Bank report said.
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