02 July 2020
No to “No”.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Raise the minimum wage; boost pensions; encourage responsible attitudes to animals; prevent top officials from holding dual citizenship… Who wouldn’t vote for a package of such measures?
This week the lucky people of Russia had the chance to do just that. Voting on dozens of proposed changes to the country’s constitution opened last Thursday (hot on the heels of Russia’s annual victory parade which, like the vote, had been postponed for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic) and closed today. The amendments also propose to enshrine such ideals as “faith in God” and “family values” in the constitution – measures which probably wouldn’t seduce Western liberals but which the Kremlin no doubt believes will go down well with its own citizens.
Oh, almost forgot, the package of constitutional reforms (only one vote, for or against the whole thing, no cherry-picking) also includes – tucked away in the small print – a single sentence of near incomprehensible legal jargon (as described in the Sunday Times) which extends presidential terms. It would allow President Putin to run for two more terms, of six years each, when he comes to the end of his current term in 2024. This sentence didn’t even appear on the government’s official referendum website until an outcry was raised about its absence. The powerful media campaign launched by the authorities to push the “yes” vote hardly mentioned this proposal, and some commentators claim that many people were still unaware of it even when they went to vote.
Campaigning for a “No” vote was forbidden, though some opposition material managed to sneak through on social media – one satirical video escaped the censor because it was taken at face value, unrecognised as parody.
Opposition not allowed. That seems to be a theme running through this week’s news. And it appears to have been taken to an extreme in some countries.
In Tanzania, opposition leader Freeman Mbowe was attacked and badly beaten. Another opposition figure, Tundu Lissu, the vice-chairman of Mr Mbowe’s Chadema party, was shot sixteen times in an attack three years ago. He’s just returned from exile, in time for elections as it happens; October elections were announced this week, just after laws giving government politicians freedom from prosecution were passed and parliament was dissolved.
Presidential elections are due in Belarus next month. President Lukashenko’s main rival, Viktor Babariko, has been detained in police custody, according to his lawyers. Another challenger, Sergei Tsikhanouski, was put out of the race last month when he was arrested at a protest – his detention meant that he missed the deadline for registering as a candidate. His wife Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya – a political novice – stepped forward to take his place. But this week she announced that threats have been made against her children, so she’s considering stepping down as a candidate.
In Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen (who has been prime minister for the last thirty years) declared that his People’s Party (which has governed since 1979) would remain on top for another hundred years. The party has held each and every one of the legislature’s 125 seats since elections two years ago, when the main opposition was dissolved (for plotting to overthrow the government – but isn’t that what an opposition is supposed to do?).
In China, human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng was jailed for four years; he was arrested two years ago for writing an open letter calling for constitutional reforms – including multi-candidate elections – and charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. And many fear that the new security laws introduced to Hong Kong will criminalise any opposition to its Beijing-backed government. Where’s the ying/yang balance there?
In the Czech Republic, Czech MEPs investigating accusations of irregularities in the Czech conglomerate Agrofert’s handling of millions of euros of EU funding have been given police protection after receiving death threats to themselves and their families. Agrofert is owned by the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, who has called the MEPs “traitors to the fatherland” on national tv.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the judges presiding on a high-profile corruption trial was murdered last week. The president’s former chief-of-staff, Vital Kamerhe, was on trial accused of embezzling £40 million from housing funds. However, in spite of the judge’s death – yes, this is where the good news begins – it appears that justice was done. This week Mr Kamerhe was found guilty, fined millions of pounds and sentenced to twenty years of hard labour.
And there was more good news from nearby Malawi. Democracy triumphed this week with the re-run of last year’s election. That ballot was widely regarded as rigged – it was dubbed the “Tipp-Ex election” – and was overturned by the constitutional court last February after months of protests. The court’s judges received death threats and were offered cash bribes to encourage them to add white-wash to the Tipp-Ex. Nevertheless they found that the “irregularities were so widespread, systematic and grave” that the results were invalid and they ordered a re-run (they now wear bullet-proof vests). President Mutharika, who’d been looking forward to a second term, appealed to the supreme court and delayed setting an election date and appointing a new electoral commission for as long as he could. In spite of such obstacles and frustrations, however, the new election finally went ahead; President Mutharika was defeated and a new president, opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera, was sworn in this week.