Belarus calls for a referendum that could strengthen Lukashenko

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The authoritarian Belarusian president has called a referendum next month on constitutional amendments, which could allow him…

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The authoritarian Belarusian president has called a referendum next month on constitutional amendments, which could allow him to further tighten his grip on power after months of mass protests and stay in office until April. in 2035.

President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, ordered Thursday that the referendum be held on February 27.

The amendments bring back presidential term limits that were abolished during Lukashenko’s tenure, only allowing a president to serve two five-year terms. However, the restriction will only take effect once a “newly elected president” takes office, giving Lukashenko the chance to run for two more terms after his current term expires in 2025.

The amendments also give substantial new powers to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, a body that nominally represents a wide cross-section of Belarusian society but which, in the past, was mostly made up of government officials and supporters. Revisions to the draft constitution indicate that a law on how to choose delegates to the assembly would be drafted later.

It would operate in parallel with the parliament. The president automatically becomes a member of the assembly and can be elected by the other delegates as president.

Belarus has been rocked by months of unprecedented mass protests after Lukashenko won a sixth consecutive term in the August 2020 presidential election, which the opposition and the West have denounced as a sham. He responded to the protests with a brutal crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and many forced to seek refuge abroad.

Proposed constitutional changes were being drafted during the turmoil.

The assembly will be empowered to set policy guidelines, draft laws, suggest constitutional changes, elect members of the country’s Central Election Commission and judges to the highest courts in the land.

He can also give the green light to the deployment of Belarusian troops abroad if the president proposes it, and oust the president if the leader is found to have violated the constitution or if he has committed high treason or a another major crime.

The amendments also remove clauses on Belarus’ “neutrality” and “non-nuclear status”. Lukashenko has offered to harbor Russia’s nuclear weapons if NATO moves US atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe, the latest in a series of moves aimed at cementing ties with Moscow.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020 and then fled into exile, told The Associated Press that opposition supporters will mark all options on ballots to render them invalid. Approval of amendments requires 50% support and 50% voter turnout.

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