Malaysia’s federal parliament building in Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s parliament convened briefly on Monday for its first session since Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as prime minister in March.

Citing the new coronavirus pandemic, the government limited the sitting to a brief address by King Abdullah, who praised the country’s health workers and repeated his earlier assessment that Muhyiddin has the backing of a parliamentary majority.

The ring-fenced session, during which neither motions nor debate were allowed, scuppered an attempt to regain power by Muhyiddin’s predecessor, 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who last week proposed holding a no-confidence vote in Muhyiddin.

Mahathir’s shock February 24 resignation was followed by a frenetic week-long power struggle, during which Mahathir re-entered the fray to return as leader after it became apparent that Anwar Ibrahim, another leading member of Mahathir’s alliance, did not have enough support among parliamentarians to lead the country.

But the faction fight was won by Muhyiddin – Mahathir’s home affairs minister and fellow founding member of the Bersatu party – after King Abdullah deemed him “most likely” to have majority support.

Mahathir bitterly protested that assessment, branding Muhyiddin a “traitor,” and claiming to enjoy the backing of 114 members of parliament.

Malaysia’s constitution allows the king, whose role is mostly ceremonial, to nominate as prime minister whoever looks to have to have the support of a majority of least 112 lawmakers.

In practice this usually means rubber-stamping the winning side in legislative elections.

On Monday, Abdullah said he “discharged my responsibility in a transparent and just manner” and added that he had pleaded with Mahathir not to resign.

Malaysia’s opposition accuses Muhyiddin of overturning the outcome of the 2018 legislative elections won by an alliance led by Mahathir.

Muhyiddin’s government includes seven ministers from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which lost the 2018 vote to Mahathir’s alliance.

Former prime minister and UMNO stalwart Najib Razak will be in court in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday for the latest hearing in his various trials related to corruption while in office.

In a statement on Monday, the opposition coalition expressed “deepest gratitude” for the king’s morning speech – but Mahathir said afterwards that he has the right to propose a no-confidence vote when parliament reconvenes on July 13.

Mahathir and other opposition leaders earlier criticised the government for allegedly ducking questions about how it has handled the coronavirus pandemic, contrasting the tightly-restricted parliament sitting with the government’s recent decision to allow many businesses restart work.

The reopening came on May 4 after a seven-week lockdown during which people were told to stay indoors. Over 23,000 people were arrested for alleged breaches of the restrictions.

The lockdown was imposed after a spike in cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in early March. Most of the cases were traced to an Islamic ceremony held in Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts in late February that was attended by an estimated 15,000 people.

The event took place the same week as Mahathir and Muhyiddin struggled for control after Mahathir resigned.

Malaysia had by Sunday afternoon reported 6,894 coronavirus cases and 113 related deaths. More than 80 per cent of those infected have since recovered, with new daily cases dropping to 16 over the weekend.

Parliamentarians were screened for the coronavirus in advance of Monday’s session, during which social distancing rules were applied.

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