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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin's main political project of the year — a constitutional vote that would allow him to extend his rule until 2036 — is set to wrap up Wednesday.

The nationwide balloting on the amendments that would reset the clock on Putin’s tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms enters its final day.

For the first time in Russia, the polls were open for a week to help reduce crowds and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive campaign to get Russia’s voters to say “yes” to the changes. Ironically, however, the plebiscite intended to consolidate his hold on power could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s unrelenting push for holding the vote despite coronavirus infection levels remaining high reflects the Russian leader’s potential vulnerabilities.

“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”

The balloting completes a convoluted saga of concealment, deception and surprise that began in January when Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation address. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of the Russian government, stoking speculation he might continue calling the shots as parliamentary speaker or as chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.

The amendments, which also emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms, outlaw same-sex marriages and mention “a belief in God” as a core value, quickly sailed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament.

As speculation swirled about Putin’s future, the 67-year-old leader remained poker-faced until March 10. That’s when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, suddenly proposed a measure to let Putin run two more times. In a carefully choreographed show, Putin then arrived in parliament just before the decisive vote to endorse Tereshkova’s proposal.

The maneuver stunned Russian political elites who were busy guessing about Putin’s future and possible successors. Many saw the resetting of term limits as an attempt by Putin to avoid becoming a lame duck and to quell a power struggle in his inner circle.

The Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again in 2024. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants from “darting their eyes in search for possible successors instead of normal, rhythmical work.”

While Putin used his KGB-honed skills of deception to delude both the public and his own entourage, he complicated his constitutional plan by putting it to voters even though parliamentary approval was sufficient to make it law.

The move was intended to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the constitutional changes. But it backfired weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the plebiscite originally scheduled for April 22.

The delay made Putin’s campaign blitz lose momentum and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during Russia’s outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59% during Russia’s outbreak, the lowest level since his ascent to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.

Amid the uncertainty, Putin rescheduled the vote immediately upon seeing the first signs of a slowdown in Russia’s infection rate even though the number of new confirmed cases reported daily remains high.

Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin faced a difficult dilemma. Holding the vote sooner would bring accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it further raised the risk of defeat, she said.

“A late vote could have been lost. Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,” Schulmann said.

She noted that the vote comes shortly after the government’s lifting of coronavirus restrictions helped brighten the public mood.

Schulmann argued that the Kremlin’s focus isn’t so much on boosting overall turnout but rather on increasing attendance by the public sector workers who make up Putin’s base.

The authorities have mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots. Reports surfaced from many corners of the vast country that managers were coercing people to vote.

The Kremlin also has used other tactics to increase turnout and support for the amendments.

Prizes ranging from gift certificates to cars and apartments were offered as an encouragement, giant billboards went up across Russia and celebrities posted ads for the “yes” vote on social media.

Two regions with large numbers of voters — Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod — allowed electronic balloting.

At the same time, monitoring the vote became more challenging due to hygiene requirements and more arcane rules for election observers. Kremlin critics argued that these would increase opportunities for vote fraud.

Russia’s weakened and fragmented opposition split into two camps over the amendments: those who called for a boycott of the vote, like the most visible Kremlin foe, Alexei Navalny, and those who advocated voting against the constitutional changes.

Most observers expect the Kremlin to get its way, regardless of the opposition’s strategies.

“People are angry at the government, but they still don’t have any alternative to Putin,” Pavlovsky said.

He noted, however, that the unusual methods used by authorities to boost turnout and get the result Putin wants would undermine the legitimacy of the vote.

“The procedure has been distorted and simplified to the point when it would be difficult to trust the figures,” Pavlovsky said.

Schulmann also warned that the balloting will likely fail to serve its designated purpose of cementing Putin’s rule as the economic pain from the coronavirus deepens.

“I think the vote will not be perceived as the legitimizing one,” she said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Roger Stone has escaped punishment for his crimes. Trump is sending a signal

Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

At America’s birth, when delegates in Virginia were debating whether to ratify the constitution, a politician called George Mason had an objection. Mason, who was influential over the development of the bill of rights, wondered whether the presidential pardon power was too broad. Might not the president encourage people who worked for him to commit crimes, and then pardon them? If he could, there would be essentially no check on a president’s power to break the law. Given that sort of leeway, an unscrupulous president could “establish a monarchy, and destroy the republic”.

Mason’s objection ought to concern us still today. Late on Friday, Donald Trump commuted the prison sentence of his longtime associate Roger Stone, all but guaranteeing that Stone will never face justice for crimes he committed while obstructing an investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with WikiLeaks and the Russian intelligence agencies who attempted to tip the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Backlash to the decision has been swift, with Trump’s fellow Republican Mitt Romney condemning the president’s “unprecedented, historic corruption”.

It is not quite true to say that there is no precedent for Trump’s act. As Mason foresaw, executive clemency has been misused by presidents throughout American history. George HW Bush pardoned six officials who had been involved in the Iran-Contra scandal – an act which may have been intended to cover up his own wrongdoing. George W Bush commuted the prison sentence of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who obstructed a federal investigation into the illegal outing of a CIA operative who was critical of the Bush administration.

This history doesn’t make Trump’s actions any less troubling. In fact, by revealing how little restraint there is on the use of executive clemency, it ought to make us worry how much further the president – whose disregard for political and constitutional norms truly is without precedent – might go in the future.

Story continues

Most presidents issue their most controversial pardons furtively, at the end of their terms in office. But Trump has reveled in his ability to toss aside the principle of the rule of law when it comes to his own allies. In 2017 he pardoned the former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had violated the constitutional rights of countless Arizonans. During the Mueller investigation – which exposed evidence that Trump himself may have committed obstruction of justice, a crime for which he could still be charged after leaving office – the president issued a full pardon to Libby, seemingly with the sole purpose of sending the message that he would forgive those – like Stone – who committed obstruction to protect himself.

A president who is willing to use executive clemency to forgive violations of constitutional rights and protect himself from the rule of law could become, as Mason foresaw, a monarch. At the Virginia ratifying convention, James Madison replied to Mason that such a president would surely face impeachment. But today’s Republican party has made it clear that it will protect Trump from impeachment even in the face of overwhelming evidence of his abuses of power. Instead, by refusing to convict, they licensed Trump to double down.

As America moves towards an election which Trump looks on course to lose, he is likely to become even less inhibited. The issuing of pardons and commutations for crimes already committed might pale in comparison with crimes yet to come. Trump could seek, once again, to sway the outcome of the election, promising pardons to his co-conspirators. He could order, as he did outside the White House, security forces to be used to disperse protesters who came into the streets in response, then issue pardons for any crimes tried by court martial or in Washington DC’s highest court.

The fact that Trump has rarely shown the focus, intelligence or competence necessary to pull off such a conspiracy is little comfort. What he lacks in these qualities he makes up for in brazenness, in loyal subordinates equally willing to subvert the rule of law, and in the possession of a compliant conservative politico-media apparatus that will rationalize any action he takes. He could do incalculable damage to confidence in American democracy and the rule of law before he is finally wrested from the White House.

In this sense, Roger Stone is the canary in the coal mine. Trump’s ability and willingness to commute his sentence is a reminder that for all its genius, the American founding left behind a structure which can be exploited and abused by an unscrupulous president. As we live through what are hopefully the dying days of the presidency of the most unscrupulous of them all, we have to remain on our guard. Partly because of his fears over the pardon power, George Mason ultimately became one of only three of the framers of the constitution to refuse to sign the final document, believing it created a blueprint for tyranny. Proving him wrong requires constant vigilance, now and in the future.

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