Malaysia’s king Tuesday declared a nationwide state of emergency to fight a coronavirus surge that is overwhelming hospitals, with critics charging it was a move by an unstable government to cling to power.
The announcement came a day after the prime minister introduced 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 in a Monday meeting, the national palace said in a statement.
The move allows for the suspension of parliament and political activities, such as local elections, and comes at a time Muhyiddin’s highly unstable, 10-month-old government is facing a host of challenges.
Key allies in his ruling coalition are threatening to withdraw support, which could lead to the collapse of the government and snap national polls that some fear could worsen the outbreak.
Malaysia kept the virus in check for much of last year with a tough lockdown but, once curbs were eased, cases accelerated and have repeatedly hit fresh records in recent days.
The emergency could be lifted earlier if the rate of infection slows, the palace statement added.
‘Dark day for democracy’
An election in the state of Sabah last year has been blamed for triggering a new wave of infections that spread nationwide.
But critics expressed worries that the declaration – rarely used in Malaysia – was a gambit to cling to power by Muhyiddin that could erode civil liberties.
“The declaration of a state of emergency seems like another attempt by Muhyiddin to hold on to power, block elections and to remove parliamentary oversight, rather than to seriously address the pandemic,” tweeted Josef Benedict from Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists.
“A dark day for democracy.”
Marina Mahathir, an activist and the daughter of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, tweeted that an emergency declaration was a “declaration of failure.”
“Failure to manage the pandemic, failure to govern, failure to care about the people,” she wrote.
Muhyiddin first tried persuade the king to declare an emergency in October, but was rebuffed.
Malaysia has been in political turmoil since March last year when Muhyiddin came to power without an election following Mahathir’s resignation and the collapse of his reformist administration.
The country has reported more than 138,000 virus cases and 555 deaths.