KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia has declared a coronavirus emergency that will suspend Parliament at least until August and halt any bids to seek a general election, but critics charged it was a political move by embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to stay in power.
The palace said in a statement Tuesday that King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah consented Monday to Muhyiddin's proposal for an emergency until Aug. 1 to curb the virus spread, which has reached a critical level.
In a televised speech, Muhyiddin assured citizens that the emergency was “not a military coup and a curfew will not be enforced.” He said his civilian government will remain in charge and that Malaysia is still “open for business."
The emergency declaration came just a day before millions of people in Malaysia's biggest city, Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capita, Putrajaya, and five high-risk states return to a near-lockdown for two weeks.
Opposition lawmakers, analysts and critics said the emergency appeared aimed at halting the collapse of Muhyiddin's government amid threats by the United Malays National Organization, the largest party in his ruling coalition, to withdraw support to force an early general election.
“If this is the true underlying reason, the declaration of a national emergency is not only an overkill but an abuse of executive power that places the country at great peril," according to a joint statement by activist groups and nongovernmental organizations.
Muhyiddin took power in March after instigating the collapse of the reformist alliance that won 2018 elections and joined with the opposition to form a Malay-centric government. But his government is shaky with a razor-thin majority in Parliament.
A second UMNO lawmaker, Nazri Aziz, announced later Tuesday that he woúld no longer support Muhyiddin. With more UMNO lawmakers expected to follow suit, he said the emergency was an admission of defeat by Muhyiddin. Many in the UMNO are unhappy that the party is playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin's own Malay party.
Muhyiddin said the national Parliament and all state legislatures will be suspended, and that no election is allowed during the period. He pledged to call a general election once the crisis has eased and it is safe to hold polls.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said most people could understand the need for movement curbs but an emergency declaration appeared overblown as it is unclear how that could help slow the virus spread.
“It's very clearly a political move from the Muhyiddin side to preempt political challenges from both his rivals in his ruling coalition as well as the opposition," he said.
Malaysia last declared an emergency in 1969 after bloody racial riots that killed hundreds. The king, who can declare a state of emergency that allows the country to be governed through ordinances that cannot be challenged in court, had in October rejected Muhyiddin’s request to declare an emergency.
King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah said at the time that existing laws were sufficient to halt the virus spread. But in a palace statement Tuesday, the monarch said he took into account public safety and the country's best interest as the pandemic has spiraled and parts of the country are struggling with floods that have displaced thousands.
The health ministry later Tuesday reported 3,309 new coronavirus cases, a new daily record, pushing the country's tally to 141,533, from just over 15,000 three months ago. The death toll also inched up to 559.
Muhyiddin, in announcing the lockdown Monday, warned that the country's healthcare system was at “breaking point." He said daily coronavirus cases, which have consistently breached 2,000 in recent weeks, could jump to 8,000 by the end of May if nothing is done. The health ministry also said it has identified the first case of a highly contagious U.K. variant in the country.
Separately, Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin became the third Cabinet minister in days to test positive for the virus, his office said Tuesday.
Under the renewed curbs that start Wednesday, social gatherings and interstate travel are banned and movement is limited within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius, similar to a national lockdown last March. However, certain sectors in manufacturing, construction, services, trade and distribution, and plantations will be allowed to operate with strict guidelines.
Muhyiddin assured investors that the period of emergency will provide “much needed calm and stability, as well as enable us to focus on economic recovery and regeneration."
Josef Benedict, a researcher with rights group CIVICUS Monitor, said the emergency appeared to be another bid by Muhyiddin to “hold on to power, block elections and to remove parliamentary oversight" rather than seriously addressing the pandemic.
“A dark day for democracy," he tweeted.