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Russia vote: President Putin could stay in power until 2036 as Russians approve constitutional reforms

A majority of Russians have voted to approve amendments to the country’s constitution which would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, despite protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Election officials said that with 98% of all precincts counted, nearly 78% had voted for the constitutional amendments.

The results mean that Mr Putin, who has effectively been in power for more than two decades, has won the right to run for two more terms. This means he could be president for another 16 years.

Yet the referendum was tarnished with reports of pressure on voters and rallies to protest against the changes.

Polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout – a first for Russia – which critics say was used as a tool to manipulate the outcome of the vote. Russian authorities said the week-long vote was to reduce crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.

Russians were also encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments to be made in the same bundle, including pensions protection and a ban on same-sex marriages.

Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said he voted for the amendments, explaining: “We need radical changes and I’m for them.”

But others were less enthusiastic. Another voter, Lyudmila, said: “I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest.

“What’s the point of voting if they’ve already decided for you. It’s like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted.”

On Russia’s easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, full preliminary results showed 80% of voters supported the amendments, while over 70% of voters backed the changes in other parts of the Far East.

But some Kremlin critics and independent election observers are sceptical about the official figures.

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the independent election monitoring group Golos, said: “We look at neighbouring regions, and anomalies are obvious – there are regions where the turnout is artificially [boosted], there are regions where it is more or less real.”

Mr Putin himself voted at a Moscow polling station, as several hundred people gathered in the city’s central square to demonstrate against the amendments – defying a ban on public gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Police did not intervene and instead handed out masks to the participants.

In Saint Petersburg, people displayed copies of the old version of the constitution before they were forced off the Palace Square by police and National Guard troops.

Mr Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in January.

He initially offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of government, but it later became clear the amendments could be used to allow Mr Putin to run two more times.

The Russian president has been in power longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and has said he will decide later whether to run again in 2024.

He has argued that resetting the term count is necessary to keep officials focused on their work instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors”.

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Politics

Democratic presidential candidate Biden says he is targeting early August to announce his vice presidential pick

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said on Tuesday he hoped to announce his choice of vice presidential candidate in early August.

Biden has promised to pick a woman as his running mate for the Nov. 3 election where he hopes to unseat Republican President Donald Trump and has established a committee to vet potential vice presidential candidates.

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World News

The president who ‘argued with God’

In the unmistakable cadence of a preacher, Malawi’s new President, Lazarus Chakwera, appealed for unity in his country shortly after he was sworn in on Sunday.

The day of the week seemed fitting as the former head of the Malawi Assemblies of God, one of the largest Christian denominations in the country, treated the stage like a pulpit to inspire fervour with his words.

The country is fractured after a divisive 13 months following the disputed 2019 election, the result of which was cancelled by the courts.

Speaking in a style and accent that had hints of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, President Chakwera talked about the dream “that binds us together [which] is for us to enjoy shared prosperity, not just freedom”.


But he then he said it was no good just having a dream.

“The time has come for us to go beyond dreaming.

“We all must wake up because this is a time to arise from slumber and make our dream come true.”

Mr Chakwera is a man of God in a deeply religious country.

The 65-year-old emerged as leader of the Malawi Congress Party in 2013 without having any previous political experience.

Fighting with God

He came to the job after leading the Assemblies of God for 24 years, but admitted, when he was first running for president in 2014, that making the decision to become a politician was not easy.

“I had to argue with God over a direction in life that didn’t seem natural to me,” he said in a video published by St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in California.

But after a lot of discussion “God was saying that: ‘I’m extending your ministry so that you’re able to pastor a whole nation'”.

In another interview, in 2017, he said that in the conversations with God he turned to chapter three of the book of Exodus in the Bible, in which God appears to Moses and says he should lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

This showed him how a leader can address both the spiritual and the social needs of the people, his adviser Sean Kampondeni told the BBC.

But he does not want to turn Malawi into a theocracy and neither does he want to proselytise, he added.

“The president believes that government is something that God subscribes to in nations in order to bring about order and progress in society, for the flourishing of human beings,” Mr Kampondeni explained.

“In Malawi, he feels that the government institutions have been deliberately crippled over the last 25 years to not provide that service and he is there as someone who is offering themselves to do that.”

President of Malawi

Born 5 April 1955

Studied theology in Malawi, South Africa and USA

Pastor and leader ofthe Malawi Assemblies of God church

Authored several books on religion including Reach the Nations

Ran for president in 2014 and came second

Became presidentin 2020 after defeating the incumbent

Standing at the apex of power and addressing the nation on Sunday, Mr Chakwera has come a long way from the boy who grew up in a village outside the capital, Lilongwe, who was, by his own admission, crippled by shyness.

The son of a preacher and evangelist who established several churches, his career as a pastor may have already seemed mapped out.

But at his prestigious secondary school, where he learned his accent by mimicking an American teacher, he initially had ambitions to be a doctor.

He thought that by being a medic he would have to talk to large numbers of people, he told journalist Joab Chakhaza in an interview in 2017.

Political v spiritual leadership

But during his education he says he “met God” and “began to redirect my life towards ministry”.

The father of four now wants to take that energy and vision and put it into running a country.

To those who think that there is a big difference between the lofty aims of spiritual leadership and the often low skulduggery of politics, Mr Chakwera’s adviser said the president was well aware of how to be political.

“Anybody who understands the political process and the journey to the presidency – the politics does not begin when you enter office,” Mr Kampondeni told the BBC.

“You have to do a lot of politics even just to enter public office.”

But, he said, the president’s approach will be different and he will not treat it like a dirty game.

He will now have to use his skill to bring the country together.

Addressing the nation and not just the crowds of jubilant supporters in Lilongwe, Mr Chakwera said that those who did not vote for him may view his presidency with “fear and grief”.

But he tried to reassure them.

“This new Malawi is a home for you too and so long as I am its president, it will be a home in which you too will prosper.”

The president’s defeat of the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was so overwhelming, with 59% of the vote, that initially many will be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, journalist Chakhaza told the BBC.

Transcending tribalism

“But he’s got a huge task as the past regime was so openly tribalistic in its appointments of people and people felt sidelined, especially from the central and northern regions,” he added.

There will be pressure to try and rebalance the past and people “will be keen to see if he can transcend that”.

The president’s supporters believe he can and he will offer a new kind of leadership inspired by God and driven by the needs of Malawians.

Inevitably, though, tough decisions will need to be made, not only in relation to the immediate challenge of coronavirus, but also how to tackle corruption and foster economic growth. These may begin to test his popularity.

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