Tuesday , January 19 2021

Malaysia power play crosses a line

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin finally got the state of emergency he first sought months ago. The sweeping powers ostensibly give him a shot at quashing a surge in coronavirus infections while, critically for the future of his leadership, putting the lid on a political rebellion that threatened his precarious 10-month tenure.
The emergency decree was declared by the king on Tuesday as a “proactive measure” to contain Covid-19 cases and may endure until August. The last one was deployed in the 1960s to combat communal rioting. Such a decree isn’t something that the Southeast Asian country’s hereditary rulers issue lightly; Muhyiddin was rebuffed when he sought one in October. But cases have exploded recently and reached a record last week. The measures allow a suspension of parliament, the tightening of borders, and more functions for the military.
The parliamentary suspension comes not a moment too soon for Muhyiddin. He came to power in March after lawmakers defected from a coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad, a force in the country’s politics for nearly half a century who was enjoying his second stint as prime minister at the then-tender age of 94.
Ever since, Muhyiddin has governed vote by vote in parliament with a wafer-thin majority. He appeared on the verge of losing it last week when tensions rose within the governing bloc which called its future into question.
It’s that fragile political backdrop that gives the emergency declaration the whiff of a heavy-handed power play. For all the talk likening last week’s storming of the US Congress to gradations of a coup, as examined by my colleague David Fickling, what’s transpiring in Malaysia is closer to the real thing. The royals, who in recent decades have exercised a mainly ceremonial role, last year helped install Muhyiddin, who had no strong power base previously. (I’ve written about their role here.)
The fact is that if an election was held soon, there’s a decent chance Muhyiddin wouldn’t come out on top. The king, Abdullah Ahmad Shah, is prolonging his life support.
The suspension of political activities is a rarity in this country of some 30 million people. Unlike regimes in neighbouring Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines that have been undone by the armed forces over the years, Malaysia, for much of its history, has been a bastion of stability.

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