KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – The King of Malaysia on Tuesday approved a coronavirus emergency that will suspend parliament at least until August and stop any general election candidacy in a political reprieve for besieged Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Muhyiddin assured citizens in a televised speech that the emergency was “not a military coup and the curfew will not be enforced.” He said his civilian government will remain in charge during the emergency, which will last until August 1 or earlier depending on the situation.
The declaration of emergency came as a surprise just a day before millions of people in Malaysia’s largest city Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya and five high-risk states returned to a two-week virtual lockdown.
She also comes amid threats from the United Malaysian National Organization, the largest party in the ruling coalition, to withdraw support for Muhyiddin to force an early general election. Many in UMNO are unhappy that the party is playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin’s own Malaysian party.
Muhyiddin said the national parliament and state legislatures will be suspended and no elections are allowed during the emergency. He pledged to call a general election once the crisis eases and the polls are safe.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore, said most people can understand the need to curb movement, but a declaration of emergency seemed overdone because it is not clear how it could help. slow the spread of the virus.
“This is very clearly a political decision on Muhyiddin’s side to prevent political challenges from his rivals in his ruling coalition as well as from the opposition,” he said.
Malaysia last declared a state of emergency in 1969 after bloody race riots that killed hundreds. The king, who can declare a state of emergency allowing the country to be ruled by ordinances that cannot be challenged in court, rejected Muhyiddin’s request in October to declare the emergency.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said at the time that existing laws were sufficient to stop the spread of the virus. But in a statement from the palace on Tuesday, the monarch said he took public safety and the country’s best interests into account when giving consent after meeting with Muhyiddin on Monday evening.
The king expressed concern as the pandemic has reached a critical level and at the same time, parts of the country are struggling with floods that have displaced thousands of people.
Cases of the virus in Malaysia have risen from just over 15,000 three months ago to 138,224, including 555 deaths, in a new outbreak sparked by a local election.
Muhyiddin, announcing the lockdown on Monday, warned that the country’s health system was at “breaking point.” He said daily coronavirus cases, which have consistently exceeded 2,000 in recent weeks, could jump to 8,000 by the end of May if left unchecked. The Department of Health also said it had identified the first case of a highly contagious British variant in the country.
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Hamzah Zainuddin became the third minister in days to test positive for the virus, his office said on Tuesday.
Under the new restrictions from Wednesday, social gatherings and interstate travel are banned and travel is restricted within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius, similar to a nationwide lockdown in March 2020. However, some manufacturing sectors , construction, services, trade and distribution, and plantations will be allowed to operate under strict guidelines.
Muhyiddin assured investors that “Malaysia is open for business”.
“This period of emergency will give us the calm and stability we so badly need, and allow us to focus on economic recovery and regeneration,” he said.
Muhyiddin took power in March after instigating the collapse of the reform alliance that won the 2018 election and joined the opposition to form a Malaysian government. But his government is unstable with a tiny majority in Parliament.
Josef Benedict, a researcher for the rights group CIVICUS Monitor, said the emergency appeared to be another attempt by Muhyiddin to “retain power, block elections and remove parliamentary oversight” rather than attack seriously to the pandemic.
“A dark day for democracy,” he tweeted.