Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott

Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko presents flowers to an election commission official ahead of voting at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 25, 2024. (Belarusian Presidential Press Service via AP)
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Updated 26 February 2024
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Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott

Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott
  • Sunday’s balloting is the first in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office
  • Belarus' opposition has called for a boycott of the election, which took place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent

TALLINN, Estonia: Sunday’s tightly controlled parliamentary and local elections in Belarus are set to cement the hard-line rule of the country’s authoritarian leader, despite a prominent opposition leader’s call for a boycott.

President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly three decades and on Sunday announced that he will run for the presidency again next year. He accuses the West of trying to use the vote to undermine his government and “destabilize” the nation of 9.5 million people.

Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice. Those parties all support Lukashenko’s policies. About a dozen other parties were denied registration last year.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, urged voters to boycott the elections.
“There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. “We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice.” Tikhanovskaya’s video address was broadcast in public places throughout Belarus on Saturday after opposition activists were able to gain access to some 2,000 screens used for advertising. Viasna Human Rights Center reported Sunday that a number of employees at the company that owned the screens have been arrested in Minsk.
Sunday’s balloting is the first in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.
Protests swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested. Thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed.
Lukashenko has relied on subsidies and political support from his main ally, Russia, to survive the protests. He allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
The election takes place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
The opposition says the early balloting that began Tuesday offers fertile ground for the vote to be manipulated, with ballot boxes unprotected for five days.
Election officials said Sunday that over 40 percent of the voters had cast ballots during early voting from Tuesday to Saturday. As of 9 p.m. local time, turnout was 72.98 percent, meeting the 50 percent threshold needed under Belarusian law in order for the vote to stand, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission. Turnout in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, was notably lower than in other Belarusian regions, only reaching 61.54 percent. By comparison, the area with the next lowest turnout, the wider Minsk region, recorded 74.20 percent.
The Viasna Human Rights Center said students, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants were forced to participate in early voting.
“Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need — from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early,” said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. “Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote.”
Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting with top Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko alleged without offering evidence that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or to try to seize power by force. He ordered police to beef up armed patrols across Belarus, declaring that “it’s the most important element of ensuring law and order.”
After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new state body — the 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will include top officials, local legislators, union members, pro-government activists and others. It will have broad powers, including the authority to consider constitutional amendments and to appoint election officials and judges.
Lukashenko was believed a few years ago to be considering whether to lead the new body after stepping down, but his calculus has apparently changed, and he announced on Sunday that he will run in next year’s presidential election.
“Tell (the opposition) that I will run. And the more difficult the situation, the more actively they will disturb our society ... the more strain they put on you, myself and society, the sooner I will run in these elections,” the strongman leader told reporters as he cast his ballot in the Belarusian capital, according to state media.
For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations, and voters were banned from taking pictures of their ballots. During the 2020 election, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots in a bid to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko’s favor.
Belarusian state TV aired footage of Interior Ministry drills in which police detained a purported offender who was photographing his ballot and others who created an artificial queue outside a polling station.
Belarus for the first time also refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, and its monitors have been the only international observers at Belarusian elections for decades.
Since 1995, not a single election in Belarus has been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE.
The OSCE said the decision not to allow the agency’s monitors deprived the country of a “comprehensive assessment by an international body.”
“The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as those who voice dissent or stand up for the human rights of others are subject to investigation, persecution and frequently prosecution,” it said in a statement.
Observers noted that authorities have not even tried to pretend that the vote is democratic.
The election offers the government an opportunity to run a “systems test after massive protests and a serious shock of the last presidential election and see whether it works,” said Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “The parliament will be sterile after the opposition and all alternative voices were barred from campaigning. It’s important for authorities to erase any memory of the protests.” In a statement, a US State Department official described the elections as a “sham.”
“The United States condemns the Lukashenko regime’s sham parliamentary and local elections that concluded today in Belarus. The elections were held in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.
“The United States again calls on the Lukashenko regime to end its crackdown, release all political prisoners, and open dialogue with its political opponents. The Belarusian people deserve better.”


Russia says it is not preparing to attack NATO

Updated 2 sec ago
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Russia says it is not preparing to attack NATO

Russia says it is not preparing to attack NATO
Zakharova said NATO was trying to “justify its existence and strengthen Washington’s control over European satellites“

MOSCOW: Russia said on Friday it was not planning to attack NATO and it was the alliance that was aggravating tensions.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was referring to a NATO Summit declaration that said: “Russia remains the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security.”
Zakharova said NATO was trying to “justify its existence and strengthen Washington’s control over European satellites.”
Western leaders have repeatedly said that President Vladimir Putin will order his military to go further and attack NATO countries in central and eastern Europe if he is not stopped in Ukraine.

Nigeria school collapse kills several students, traps others

Nigeria school collapse kills several students, traps others
Updated 11 min 47 sec ago
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Nigeria school collapse kills several students, traps others

Nigeria school collapse kills several students, traps others
  • Parents desperately looked for their children at the Saint Academy in Jos North district
  • It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse

JOS, Nigeria: A school in central Nigeria collapsed on Friday, killing several students and trapping others who were heard crying out for help under the rubble, a rescue agency and witnesses said.
Parents desperately looked for their children at the Saint Academy in Jos North district of Plateau State after the building fell in on students taking their exams, an AFP correspondent at the site said.
“A two-story building housing Saint Academy... in Busa Buji in Jos North Local Government Area of Plateau State collapsed this morning killing several students,” the National Emergency Management Agency said in a statement.
“NEMA and other critical stakeholders are presently carrying out Search and Rescue operations,” it said.
Officials did not give a precise toll, but a resident at the scene Chika Obioha told AFP he estimated eight people died at the site and dozens more had been injured.
“Everyone is helping out to see if we can rescue more people,” he said.
It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse but residents said it came after three days of heavy rains in Plateau.
Building collapses are fairly common in Africa’s most populous nation because of lax enforcement of building standards, negligence and use of low quality materials.


France seeks government as PM vows to ‘guard against’ extremes

France seeks government as PM vows to ‘guard against’ extremes
Updated 22 min 11 sec ago
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France seeks government as PM vows to ‘guard against’ extremes

France seeks government as PM vows to ‘guard against’ extremes
  • Voters from different camps joined forces in the second round to shut the far-right National Rally (RN) out of power in a “republican front“
  • Macron has rejected LFI demands they should be tasked with forming the next government

PARIS: France’s political parties scrambled Friday to break a parliamentary deadlock brought on by an inconclusive snap election, as the outgoing prime minister vowed to prevent any government with far-right or hard-left members.
A runoff Sunday left the National Assembly without any overall majority, but a broad alliance of Socialists, Communists, Greens and the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) won the most seats, with 193 in the 577-strong lower chamber.
Voters from different camps joined forces in the second round to shut the far-right National Rally (RN) out of power in a “republican front,” allowing President Emmanuel Macron’s followers to claim second place with 164 seats and leaving the far right in third at 143.
With each of the three blocs controlling roughly one-third of the chamber, political leaders are admitting it may be a long slog to find a government able to survive a no-confidence vote.
Macron has rejected LFI demands they should be tasked with forming the next government, appearing to rule out a role for either LFI — the largest player in the New Popular Front (NFP) left alliance — or the far-right RN in any new coalition.
Prime Minister Gabriel Attal echoed that stance Friday saying that he would seek “to guard against any government” that included RN or LFI ministers.
In a document outlining his bid to take the leadership of the Macron-allied “Renaissance” parliamentary group, Attal acknowledged it had “narrowly escaped extinction” in the vote.
As party group leader, Attal said he would “completely revise our methods and our organization.”
Attal, the only candidate to take over the Renaissance parliamentary leadership, said he hoped to “contribute to the emergence of a majority concerning projects and ideas” in the future parliament.
Renaissance deputies are to elect their new leader on Saturday. If voted in, Attal said he would rename the formation “Together for the Republic.”
The document, seen by AFP, made no mention of Macron, with reports suggesting that Attal is distancing himself from his former mentor, blaming Macron’s decision to dissolve parliament and call the election for the political quagmire.
Under the French constitution Macron, who has just under three years left of his second presidential term, will appoint the next prime minister.
The nominee must be able to garner enough support to negotiate the first hurdle, a confidence vote in the National Assembly.
There is, meanwhile, a good chance that the current government remains in place until after the Paris Olympic Games which open on July 26, according to political observers.
The leftist NFP, which had initially promised to suggest a candidate for prime minister to Macron by the end of the week, on Friday acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t be able to.
“I’d rather not set a deadline,” said LFI coordinator Manuel Bompard, telling the TF1 broadcaster that “more time may be needed for discussions.”
Green party boss Marine Tondelier said the problem was that “everybody claims that they are the biggest group” which she said showed that vote size was perhaps not “the most important criterion.”
A source within the Socialist party who declined to be named said the LFI had put forward four names, including that of firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon who is unacceptable to all other parties, and controversial even among LFI members.
The Socialists themselves are pushing for their party’s boss, Olivier Faure, who they say would be acceptable as prime minister to a broad range of deputies from the left to center-right.
“Faure or Melenchon? That’s the real question,” remarked a Socialist official who declined to be named.
The head of the RN, Marine Le Pen, has already threatened that her deputies would reject any government that included LFI or Green ministers.
The RN’s vice president Sebastien Chenu meanwhile said that he saw “no satisfactory solution” to the current standoff “except a kind of technocratic government without political affiliation.”


Biden faces more pressure from Democrats to abandon re-election bid

Biden faces more pressure from Democrats to abandon re-election bid
Updated 41 min 29 sec ago
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Biden faces more pressure from Democrats to abandon re-election bid

Biden faces more pressure from Democrats to abandon re-election bid
  • It was unclear whether Biden’s performance would convince doubters in his party that he is their best bet to defeat Republican Donald Trump
  • At least 17 congressional Democrats so far have called for him to drop out

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden faced more calls from fellow Democrats to abandon his re-election bid on Friday, following a news conference in which he delivered nuanced responses but occasionally stumbled over his words.
It was unclear whether Biden’s performance would convince doubters in his party that he is their best bet to defeat Republican Donald Trump in the Nov. 5 election and serve another four-year term in the White House.
At least 17 congressional Democrats so far have called for him to drop out and allow the party to pick another standard-bearer, including some who announced their positions after the news conference on Thursday night.
Democrats are worried that Biden’s low public approval ratings and growing concerns that he is too old for the job could cause them to lose seats in the House and Senate, leaving them with no grip on power in Washington should Trump win the White House.
But Biden made clear that he did not plan to step aside.
“If I show up at the convention and everybody says they want someone else, that’s the democratic process,” Biden said, before shifting to the stage whisper he often uses for emphasis to add, “It’s not gonna happen.”
Biden perhaps did not reassure those who were spooked by his poor presidential debate performance against Trump on June 27.
At one point, he referred to his vice president, Kamala Harris, as “Vice President Trump.” That came just hours after he introduced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “President Putin” at the NATO summit, drawing gasps from those in the room.
Biden occasionally garbled his responses at the news conference, yet he also delivered detailed assessments of global issues, including Ukraine’s war with Russia and the Israel-Gaza conflict, that served as a reminder of his decades of experience on the world stage.
Some Democrats were not reassured.
“We must put forward the strongest candidate possible to confront the threat posed by Trump’s promised MAGA authoritarianism. I no longer believe that is Joe Biden,” said Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, who called on the president to end his campaign after the news conference.
But one influential party figure, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, reiterated his support on Friday morning.
“I am all in. I’m riding with Biden no matter which direction he goes,” he said on NBC’s “Today” program.
A senior campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity called the performance the “worst of all worlds. Not good. But not bad enough to make him change his mind ... It’ll give some enough cover to back him publicly, only to say he’s not up for it privately.”
Fundraiser Dmitri Melhorn said other donors told him they saw a strong performance from the president. “This is the person who can beat Trump. The mistakes are baked in and the upside is strong,” he told Reuters.
Biden will hold a rally on Friday in Detroit, where his campaign says he will focus on the “dangers” of Trump’s agenda.
The Michigan city is also headquarters of the United Auto Workers labor union, whose leaders endorsed Biden but now are assessing their options, three sources told Reuters.
With most US voters firmly divided into ideological camps, opinion polls show the race remains close.
An NBC/PBS poll released on Friday found Biden leading Trump 50 percent to 48 percent, a slight increase from his position before the debate. Biden fared slightly worse than Trump when third-party candidates were included in the questioning.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week found Biden and Trump tied at 40 percent each. But some nonpartisan analysts have warned that Biden is losing ground in the handful of competitive states that will determine the outcome of the election.


Kyiv says it wants permission for strikes in Russia to destroy air bases

Kyiv says it wants permission for strikes in Russia to destroy air bases
Updated 48 min 37 sec ago
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Kyiv says it wants permission for strikes in Russia to destroy air bases

Kyiv says it wants permission for strikes in Russia to destroy air bases
  • Kyiv sought the destruction of air bases from which Russian aircraft fly

KYIV: Kyiv wants its allies to lift restrictions on long-range attacks inside Russia so that it can systematically destroy Russian air bases where aircraft used in attacks on Ukraine are stationed, a Ukrainian presidential adviser said on Friday.
Mykhailo Podolyak said on X that Kyiv sought the destruction of air bases from which Russian aircraft fly to carry out “deliberate massive strikes against the civilian population and civilian objects.”