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.
Part of that domestic demand is government spending on infrastructure, and handouts given to civil servants and low-wage workers during 2012. Governing parties say it is all part of advancing the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), an initiative launched in 2010 with the expressed goal of transforming Malaysia into a “high-income” economy by 2020.
The ETP has shorter-term benefits as well, according to the government. Dr. Chua Soi Lek, President of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a government party that will compete with the opposition for the Chinese-Malay vote, has said that in the absence of the ETP Malaysia’s “economy would be like other economies that are affected by the global economic slowdown.”
To buttress its economic appeal, the government has undertaken a series of political reforms to lessen some of the country’s harsher laws and now allows political protests to take place under the terms of a new Peaceful Assembly Act passed last month.
However the governing parties are losing support according to some polls, leaving the BN more dependent on riding the coattails of the still-popular Prime Minister. Approval ratings for the PM hover around the 60 percent mark, with the most recent poll by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research from December finding that Najib has a 63 percent approval rating down 2 percent from the month before. December’s approval rating was the lowest for Najib since 59 percent expressed support for him in August 2011.
The same poll found that 47 percent support Najib’s National Front (BN) coalition, while 45 percent said they were happy with government, down from 48 percent in October.
After making history in 2008 by topping the one-third seats bar and thereby denying the omnipresent National Front coalition its usual two-third supermajority in parliament – the Pakatan Rakyat (PR, or People's Alliance) coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim remains a long shot to win the 2013 election – but is expected to improve upon its strong 2008 election.
The National Front coalition controls 137 seats in Malaysia’s 222-member parliament, with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) the biggest party in the coalition and effectively the party that runs the country. Anwar’s three-party opposition, known as the People’s Alliance, holds 75 seats.
In the end, however, the BN remains the heavy favorite, based on likely support in rural areas, with the opposition likely to win in Malaysia's cities.
“Elections will be decided in rural areas where 2/3's of seats are based,” says James Chin of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
The opposition parties are somewhat divided, made up of Anwar's own People's Justice Party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, usually referred to by its acronym PAS, and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is largely made up of ethnic-Chinese members but maintains it is a multi-racial party.
Despite the prevalence of “race” based tensions in Malaysian society, ethnic and religious issues are unlikely to be central to the coming election despite a renewed debate over PAS desire to impose sharia law on the Muslim-majority country. There have also been disputes over whether Malay-speaking Christians should be allowed use the word “Allah” to refer to God.
Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysian political analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says changing voting behavior have made such issues of less and less relevance. “For a young Malaysian politician hoping to be a top leader in the near future to use racial and religious arguments is not a wise move,” he says.
Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia for several publications and has reported from Malaysia several times. Follow on twitter @simonroughneen.