In Setback for PM, Malaysia’s King Says Parliament Can Meet During Emergency

Ray Sherman and Hadi Azmi
Kuala Lumpur
2021-02-24
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In Setback for PM, Malaysia’s King Says Parliament Can Meet During Emergency Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah Riayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah wears a face mask as he offers prayers during an opening ceremony for parliament, in Kuala Lumpur, May 18, 2020.
[Malaysia Department of Information /AFP]

Malaysia’s parliament can sit during an emergency, the king said Wednesday, adding he would consult with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on a date for a session, in a move that analysts described as a setback for the unelected PM.

A parliamentary sitting could precipitate a no-confidence vote against Muhyiddin, analysts said about the longtime veteran of Malaysian politics who came to power in early March 2020 but who has since lost majority support, according to many lawmakers.

Muhyiddin had suspended the legislature when the king declared the emergency on Jan. 12, a move widely criticized by the opposition. But on Wednesday, the monarch said the assumption that parliament could not sit during an emergency was inaccurate based on provisions of the emergency ordinance.

King Al-Sultan Abdullah Riayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah “stated his view that Parliament can convene during the emergency and will take effect on a date that His Majesty deems suitable, on the advice of the prime minister,” palace spokesman Ahmad Fadil Shamsuddin said in a statement that was issued after the king met on Wednesday with the heads of the lower and upper houses of parliament.

“This is enshrined under paragraph 14(1)(b) of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, which states that parliament may be called, prorogued and dissolved on a date deemed suitable by the king, on the advice of the prime minister,” the statement said.

“Therefore, the perception of some people that the emergency declaration would stop parliament from convening is inaccurate.”

The provisions in the emergency ordinance have been interpreted differently across the political spectrum, particularly on the issue of whether parliament could be suspended during an emergency.

In addition, when Muhyiddin advised the king to declare an emergency until Aug. 1, it was unclear whether he had discussed the decision to suspend parliament with the monarch. As of Wednesday night, that question remained unresolved.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy with the king as head of state. But his position is largely ceremonial, and he has to act in accordance with the wishes of the government.

On Wednesday, the king said he had approved the emergency declaration “only as a proactive step to curb the spread of COVID-19,” Fadil said.

The monarch also “stressed” that Malaysia’s democracy was based on the Federal Constitution, and the executive, the judiciary and the legislature had to abide by its principles, the palace spokesman said.

Muhyiddin’s advice to the king to declare an emergency occurred at the same time the PM lost the support of two lawmakers, which nominally left him without majority support in parliament.

Opposition members and members of a party in the ruling coalition said the PM’s advice to the king to declare an emergency was a move to prevent general elections being called – in a situation where he had lost majority support – and was an attempt to cling to power.

The PM had denied the allegation, saying it wasn’t his intention to avoid elections, and that polls would be held as soon as the pandemic was under control.

Opposition leader Anwar and leaders of parties within his Pakatan Harapan coalition said that they supported the king’s wish to convene parliament, and urged Muhyiddin to do so in March.

“This is also the stance of Pakatan and a majority of the MPs that the executive and judiciary can work during the Emergency,” they said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

“Therefore we fully support his majesty’s wishes to restore parliament’s position in playing a crucial role within the Federal Constitution, by highlighting issues and problems faced by the rakyat [people] in containing the COVID-19 pandemic as well as mapping the steps to revitalize the national economy.”

‘There will surely be calls for a no-confidence vote’

If parliament resumes sessions, there will be attempts to file no-confidence motions against Muhyiddin, said Tunku Mohar Mokhtar of the International Islamic University of Malaysia

“If the parliament is re-convened, there will surely be calls for a no-confidence vote,” Mokhtar told BenarNews.

James Chin, an Asian politics expert at the University of Tasmania, agreed, saying there would be attempts to topple Muhyiddin if a parliamentary session was held.

“This current move is a setback for Muhyiddin,” he told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Bridget Welsh, a political scientist with Nottingham University based in Malaysia, said she could not speak to the king’s motivation in issuing the statement about parliament convening more than a month after it was suspended.

“We do know that Pakatan Harapan members in the king’s committee and many in the public have called for parliament to sit, to be a check on the government and to contribute to a needed wider discussion on the problems facing the country,” Welsh told BenarNews.

She was referring to Anwar’s coalition, and to an emergency committee to advise the king during the emergency, which comprises ruling and opposition lawmakers.

“Muhyiddin, however, has some time before parliament will have to be called, as vaccine administration has not fully started. The earliest any election can be called will depend on COVID-19,” Welsh said.

Muhyiddin may have a chance to boost his popularity with the inoculation campaign, Welsh said, but that depends on how well it is run.

On Wednesday, Muhyiddin received the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccine shot, as health authorities began the first phase of the drive that aims to inoculate 500,000 health care and frontline workers.

A day earlier, Khairy Jamaluddin, minister overseeing the vaccination program, told Channel News Asia that Malaysia may be ready for a general election once half of its 32 million population is inoculated. That could be as soon as September, he said.

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