Malaysia's king Tuesday approved a coronavirus emergency that will suspend parliament at least until August and halt any bids to seek a general election in a political reprieve for embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Muhyiddin assured citizens in a televised speech that the emergency was “not a military coup and curfew will not be enforced.” He said his civilian government will remain in charge during the emergency, that will last until Aug. 1 or earlier depending on the situation.
The emergency declaration came as a surprise just a day after Muhyiddin announced that Malaysia's biggest city Kuala Lumpur the administrative capital Putrajaya and five high-risk states will return to a near-lockdown from Wednesday for two weeks.
It also comes amid threats by the United Malays National Organization, the largest party in the ruling coalition, to withdraw support from Muhyiddin so an early general election could be held. Many in UMNO are unhappy that the party is playing second fiddle to Muhyiddin's own Malay party.
Muhyiddin said he will call a general election once the pandemic has eased when 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, which 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, the monarch said he took into account public safety and the country's best interest in giving his consent after meeting Muhyiddin late Monday.
Malaysia’s virus cases have spiraled from just over 15,000 three months ago to 138,224, including 555 deaths.