Malaysia’s king declared a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday to fight a coronavirus surge and parliament was suspended, with critics charging it was a bid by the unstable government to cling to power.
The surprise move came a day after the prime minister announced sweeping new curbs across much of the Southeast Asian nation, including the closure of most businesses, and warned the health system was “at breaking point”.
Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah agreed to declare an emergency until August 1 following a request from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the national palace said in a statement.
It is the first time Malaysia has declared a national state of emergency in over half a century and Muhyiddin, in a televised address, confirmed parliament would be suspended and elections would not take place for the time being.
But the leader, whose 10-month-old administration is showing signs of falling apart, insisted that “the civilian government will continue to function”.
“The emergency declaration… is not a military coup and a curfew will not be enforced,” he said.
He insisted he was committed to holding a general election once the country’s outbreak is brought under control.
The announcement came after Muhyiddin’s key coalition allies started withdrawing support, which could have led to the collapse of the government and snap national polls that some feared could worsen the outbreak.
A local election last year has been blamed for triggering a new wave of infections that spread nationwide.
Muhyiddin has narrowly survived a series of challenges in parliament since taking office but is now thought to have lost his majority. The Pact of Hope opposition alliance, which includes veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, said the move was unacceptable as the partial lockdown announced earlier in the week was enough to tackle the virus.
“The emergency powers give the prime minister absolute power to do anything he wishes,” the pact’s leaders said in a statement.
“Do not hide behind the coronavirus and burden the people by declaring an emergency in a bid to save your self.” As well as suspending political life, the declaration gives the government powers to take over private hospitals as government facilities become overwhelmed, and get extra help from the military and police, Muhyiddin said.
The emergency could be lifted earlier if the rate of infection slows, according to the palace.
Malaysia kept the virus in check for much of last year with a tough lockdown but, once curbs were eased, cases accelerated dramatically.
A record 3,309 cases were reported on Tuesday, taking the total to over 141,000 with 559 deaths.
The Kuala Lumpur stock market slid heavily after the state of emergency was announced but clawed back ground to end the day down 0.32 percent.
Muhyiddin first tried to persuade the king to declare an emergency in October but was rebuffed. The last time an emergency was declared nationally was in 1969, in response to deadly racial riots.
Malaysia has been in turmoil since March last year when Muhyiddin came to power without an election following then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation and the collapse of his reformist administration.
Mahathir, 95, led an opposition alliance to a historic victory at landmark polls in 2018 and toppled a corruption-riddled coalition that had governed the country for six decades.