KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's prime minister said his government was prioritizing protecting people from COVID-19 amid a new outbreak after the king rebuffed his emergency proposal that critics saw as an undemocratic attempt to hold onto power.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's proposal for the king to declare a state of emergency to fight the coronavirus would have suspended Parliament and let him dodge an imminent test of his support. Muhyiddin could then govern through ordinances that could not be challenged in court.
The plan sparked national outrage, but the king's decision to reject it Sunday was praised by many Malaysians on social media.
The palace said in a statement that Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah “is of the opinion that there is currently no need for His Majesty to declare a state of emergency in this country or any part of Malaysia."
The king also said the government has handled the pandemic well and believes Muhyiddin is capable of coping with the crisis, though he also called for a halt to “all politicking” that could disrupt the government’s stability.
Hours later, Muhyiddin said the Cabinet noted the king's decision and will further discuss the decree. Local media said the Cabinet is expected to meet later Monday. His aide couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
“The priority of the Cabinet and the government at this time is to protect citizens from the COVID-19 disease," he said in a brief statement. He also welcomed the king's advice to ensure his government's stability.
Muhyiddin took power in March but holds only a two-seat majority in Parliament. He faces challenges from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who says he has majority support but needs the monarch's approval to form a new government, as well as from the biggest party in his ruling coalition, which is angry about being sidelined in his government.
Muhyiddin faces a key test in early November when his government is due to seek approval for its 2021 budget in Parliament. If he is unable to pass the bill, pressure will build for him to resign or call new elections. A state of emergency could allow him to approve the budget without a vote and consolidate support.
“In whatever way you look at it, indications are that the PM has realized that he has effectively lost his majority," said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, political science professor at Malaysia's University of Science.
But not all is lost. Despite the king's rejection, his endorsement of Muhyiddin's government could offer a reprieve and help the premier get the budget bill passed.
Malaysia’s coronavirus cases doubled to more than 26,000 in just three weeks following a new outbreak, mainly in Sabah state on Borneo island.
Politicians from both sides of the divide as well as legal and medical experts have said there is no need for an emergency decree because there are sufficient laws to curb public movement and impose penalties to curb the virus. Some have warned that declaring an emergency could plunge the country into a dictatorship and ruin the economy.
The last time emergency laws were invoked nationally was in 1969 during deadly racial riots.