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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's parliament to reopen July 26 as Muhyiddin gives in

King's pressure sets up political showdown in 'hybrid' online-offline session

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in parliament last year: The legislature is due to sit for five days later this month.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has agreed to reconvene the country's suspended parliament later this month, bowing to pressure from the country's king.

In a statement on Monday, the prime minister's office said the lower house would sit for five days between July 26 and Aug. 2, followed by a three-day Senate session starting Aug. 3.

Malaysia is still locked in a serious battle with COVID-19, with infections creeping back over 6,000 a day recently. Muhyiddin had previously said parliament should not reopen until the autumn, after daily cases fall below 2,000. But King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin pushed for a sitting before Aug. 1, when the country's coronavirus state of emergency expires.

Muhyiddin's rivals have vocally criticized the long parliamentary suspension -- ostensibly in the name of the emergency -- as a tactic to keep his shaky government in power.

The upcoming legislative session will be a "hybrid" with in-person and online participation. Although precise numbers have not been specified, only half the 222 lower house lawmakers are expected to be physically present.

"The purpose of this meeting is to provide information to the members of parliament on the National Recovery Plan and amend all legislation and regulations to enable parliamentary sittings to be held hybrid," the prime minister's office statement read.

It added that all emergency proclamations and ordinances made by the king since the state of emergency was declared in January would be brought before both houses of parliament, pursuant to Article 150 of the federal constitution.

Although the king has limited power to open parliament -- the constitution only allows him to do so based on a request from the prime minister -- Muhyiddin was clearly feeling the heat.

The king held a special conference with his fellow Malay state rulers in mid-June and made it clear that parliament needed to reconvene promptly. They also agreed that the emergency should not be extended despite the ongoing crisis.

In a private audience with the speakers of both the upper and lower houses, the monarch pressed for checks and balances, and the resumption of a functional legislature by the deadline.

Ignoring the royal guidance would have been perceived as disloyalty on Muhyiddin's part.

Yet for the prime minister -- who is currently hospitalized with a digestive problem but is expected to be discharged soon -- parliament is treacherous ground.

Late last year, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim repeatedly insisted that in fact he was the one who commanded majority support from lawmakers. Anwar's leadership challenge went nowhere, but Muhyiddin's position has grown only more precarious. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest party in his coalition, has already said it will not cooperate with him whenever the next election happens.

Opposition parties could try to push a no-confidence motion, or at least attempt to undermine the prime minister by slamming his handling of the pandemic. Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Selangor came under an enhanced lockdown order over the weekend, adding to the strain on citizens and businesses.

Last week, Muhyiddin announced an additional 150 billion ringgit ($36.2 billion) worth of economic assistance, including cash handouts, wage subsidies, loan moratoriums and other aid.

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