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Coronavirus

Malaysia COVID emergency measures 'not a coup,' Muhyiddin says

Parliament suspension gives PM respite from pressure to call election

A medical worker collects a coronavirus test sample from a police officer in Shah Alam, Malaysia, on Jan. 7.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's government on Tuesday proclaimed a state of emergency with the king's consent, aiming to arrest a surge in coronavirus cases while also blocking any attempts by political parties to destabilize embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's administration.

The emergency, which entails a suspension of parliament, is to last until August or as long as it takes to control COVID-19, according to a statement from King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin's palace. Muhyiddin, who delivered a televised address shortly after the statement was released, said a long-rumored snap election will not be held until the decree is lifted but offered assurances that this was not an attempt to seize power.

"Let me assure you that the civilian government will continue to function," he said. The emergency "is not a military coup and a curfew will not be enforced."

The decision comes a day after Muhyiddin announced new movement restrictions in six states including Kuala Lumpur, as the country suffers its most serious wave of coronavirus infections yet. Daily cases have skyrocketed to over 2,000 in recent weeks, with the prime minister warning that the health care system is at a breaking point.

Malaysia has been actively securing vaccine doses to escape the pandemic. The government on Monday struck a deal for 12.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. That is on top of 12.8 million Pfizer doses already lined up, plus 6.4 million from AstraZeneca and another 6.4 million expected from the World Health Organization's COVAX.

On Tuesday, a Malaysian company also agreed to obtain 14 million doses from China's Sinovac, with supplies expected by the end of March.

But while it waits for the shots, the government has an immediate crisis on its hands. Malaysia's daily cases per million are now among the highest in the region. Data from Johns Hopkins shows a seven-day rolling average of 74.66 per million as of Sunday, versus 32.73 for hard-hit Indonesia and 12.88 for the Philippines.

At the same time, the emergency is politically convenient for Muhyiddin, who tried and failed to convince the king to make a similar declaration back in October amid a leadership challenge from opposition rival Anwar Ibrahim.

More recently, Muhyiddin had faced an ultimatum from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) -- the most powerful force in the ruling coalition -- to call a general election by the end of March. There had also been speculation that some UMNO lawmakers were ready to renounce the premier, which could have caused his government to collapse.

Instead, Muhyiddin appears to have secured an uninterrupted mandate for the next seven months or so. He said he decided against holding an election soon because it would have risked safety and betrayed public trust.

"I don't intend to block an election but the major obstacle stopping me from advising the king to dissolve the parliament is the COVID-19 pandemic," Muhyiddin said. "It is my duty as the head of the government to safeguard the lives of the people from COVID-19. Thus, I give my firm commitment to hold a general election as soon as the independent special committee on the emergency agrees that the pandemic is under control."

The emergency move will grant the authorities -- via the king -- more power to curb the virus, the prime minister explained.

"The king can also proclaim several emergency ordinances throughout the period to control the spread of COVID-19," he said, including the "temporary takeover of private hospital buildings, land and usage of assets."

Muhyiddin added, "An ordinance can also be proclaimed to entrust the military with enforcement powers similar to the police."

That could raise concerns over civil liberties. The prime minister, however, was at pains to argue that the emergency is a necessary measure and merely a step on the road to recovery.

"I emphasize that Malaysia is open for business," he said. The emergency period "will give us much needed calm and stability, as well as enable us to focus on economic recovery and regeneration. We remain committed to good governance in these times and we have a robust and dynamic regulatory ecosystem."

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