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Polish president wins 2nd term after bitter campaign

July 13, 2020

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish President Andrzej Duda declared victory Monday in a runoff election in which he narrowly won a second five-year term, acknowledging the campaign he ran was often too harsh as he appealed for unity and forgiveness.

The close race followed a bitter campaign between Duda and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski that was dominated by cultural issues. The government, state media and the influential Roman Catholic Church all mobilized in support of Duda and sought to stoke anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia in order to shore up conservative support.

Duda celebrated what was seen as a mandate for him and the right-wing ruling party that backs him, Law and Justice, to continue on a path that has reduced poverty but raised concerns that democracy is under threat.

“It was a very sharp campaign, probably too sharp at times,” Duda told supporters in Odrzywol, a town near Warsaw. “If anyone is offended by my words, please forgive me. And give me the chance to improve in the next five years.”

Duda received 51.03% of Sunday’s vote, while Trzaskowski got 48.97%, according to final results Monday from the state electoral commission. Duda told supporters in Odrzywol that he was grateful and moved by winning the support of more than 10 million voters. He said that with the race now over, it was time to turn to the difficult job of returning the country to strong growth after the economic blow of the coronavirus.

Trzaskowski conceded defeat and congratulated Duda. He thanked his supporters and said his strong showing would be the catalyst to fight to keep Poland from becoming a one-party state. “This is just the beginning of the road,” Trzaskowski said.

But Adam Michnik, a prominent anti-communist dissident and the founding editor of the liberal Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, said the result bodes badly for Poland’s young democracy. “Andrzej Duda’s victory will be understood by his voters, and first of all by those in power, as a permission for the kind of politics that Law and Justice has been pursuing for almost five years, and that is a policy of the destruction of the democratic system, of isolating Poland in Europe, of homophobia, of xenophobia, nationalism and of using the Catholic Church as a tool,” Michnik said.

“I would not even rule out a situation in which, if this policy is continued and we see an attempt on the free media, culture and science, there could be another ‘Maidan,’” he said, referring to the bloody 2014 pro-Europe protests in Ukraine.

Critics and human rights groups worry Duda’s victory will boost illiberal tendencies at home and in the European Union, which has also struggled to halt an erosion of rule of law in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Among those who welcomed Duda’s victory were Orban, as well as the Czech leaders. Orban congratulated him on Facebook, saying “bravo!” while Czech President Milos Zeman though a spokesman said: “Long live Poland!”

The result was dispiriting for liberals in Europe who are keen to halt what they consider the threat of populism and nationalism. Remigijus Simasius, the liberal mayor of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, offered his condolences to Poles and said the small difference in support of about 2% “sometimes determines the path between progress and regress.”

Duda got help from U.S. President Donald Trump, who invited him to the White House in late June and said he was “doing a terrific job.” His campaign focused on defending traditional family values in the predominantly Catholic nation of 38 million people, and on preserving social spending policies.

The party’s popular policies included lowering the retirement age and paying monthly cash bonuses of 500 zlotys ($125) per child to all families irrespective of income. Many credit Law and Justice for being the first party to reduce the economic inequality that came with Poland’s transition from communism to a market economy three decades ago. There is a strong sense among Poles that the economic help is restoring a sense of dignity after decades of hardship from war, communism and the upheaval brought by capitalism.

The party also stoked conflict with the EU by taking control of the top courts and judicial bodies. Officials in Brussels repeatedly expressed concern over the rule of law in both Poland and Hungary, which were for many years hailed as the most successful democracies to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.

Law and Justice officials have said they plan to continue reshaping the justice system and also want to nationalize foreign-owned private media outlets. Critics fear that lower courts will face increased political pressure and that press freedom will face new threats.

Zselyke Csaky, an expert on central Europe with the human rights group Freedom House, said Duda’s victory gives the party “essentially free rein” until parliamentary elections in 2023 “to do away with limits on its power and work towards destroying Poland’s independent institutions.”

Sunday’s vote was originally planned for May but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Turnout was 68.18%, close to a record set in 1995, in a sign of the huge stakes for Poles. As the race tightened, Duda turned further to the right in search of votes. He denounced the LGBT rights movement as an “ideology” worse than communism.

His campaign also cast Trzaskowski as someone who would sell out Polish interests to Jewish interests, tapping old anti-Semitic tropes in a country that was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before it was decimated by Germany in the Holocaust.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election, said that while well organized, “negative campaigning and mutual vilification abounded” and that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

But the World Jewish Congress focused on Duda’s past condemnations of anti-Semitism in a congratulatory statement, not mentioning the harsh campaign. “President Duda has spoken out against this hatred, and we remain hopeful that he will continue to do so,” WJC President Ronald Lauder said.

During the campaign, Duda also lashed out at a German correspondent and a partly German-owned tabloid for their campaign coverage, alleging “a German attack in these elections.” A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday that Berlin works “outstandingly” with the Polish government and would continue to do so.

Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin; Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary; and Karel Janicek in Prague and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed.

A deeply divided Poland chooses a president in runoff vote

July 08, 2020

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Two bitter rivals are heading into a razor’s-edge presidential runoff election Sunday in Poland that is seen as an important test of populism in Europe after a campaign that exacerbated a conservative-liberal divide in the country.

The tough campaign has seen strains of homophobia and anti-Semitism, and both sides have sought backing from rival political camps in Washington. President Andrzej Duda, a nationalist and conservative, is seeking a second term, but he faces a tough challenge from liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski. The first round in late June eliminated nine other candidates, leaving the two rivals, both 48.

Duda has made his opposition to LGBT rights a key campaign theme, while Trzaskowski signed a tolerance declaration last year that triggered a backlash against gay rights in the mostly Catholic country.

Duda has called LGBT rights an “ideology” more dangerous than communism, and on Monday he formally proposed a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex couples from adopting children. He and the Law and Justice party have won the backing of older and rural Poles, helped by cash payments to families and other welfare programs.

“These last five years have been a good time that we have used well,” Duda told supporters at a rally Monday. “I want to continue this policy — for the family, for the development of Poland, for the development of all generations of my countrymen.”

But many liberal and urban Poles reject a brand of populism that they see as xenophobic and dangerous to their standing with European partners. Last month, Duda was feted at the White House by President Donald Trump, who said he was doing a “terrific job.” Trzaskowski later turned to former President Barack Obama to discuss the state of Poland’s democracy.

As Duda’s once-high poll numbers have fallen, his campaign has turned further to the right, seeking to incite fears of gays, Jews and even Germans, apparently to mobilize conservatives and those who remember the Nazis’ World War II-era occupation of Poland.

The president has a key role in foreign policy and veto power over laws passed by parliament. During his five-year-term, Duda has approved laws giving the Law and Justice party vast new powers over Poland’s top courts and key judicial bodies.

The European Union says the changes violate the democratic principle of separation of powers, but the government has insisted on moving forward with most measures, arguing it has a mandate from voters to reform the justice system.

Adding to strains in its relationship with its European partners has been coal-dependent Poland’s refusal to agree to the EU’s ambitious carbon neutrality goals, and a refusal to accept any migrants who arrived in large numbers in Europe in 2015.

Sunday’s vote will determine whether Law and Justice will keep control of almost all institutions of power in Poland, or will have to give a say to Trzaskowski, who belongs to the pro-EU Civic Platform party and has vowed to restore constitutional norms.

Duda won 43.5% of the vote in the first round. Trzaskowski got 30.5% but is expected to get the bulk of the centrist votes that went to the eliminated candidates. This leaves the final outcome hinging on the nearly 7% of voters who supported a far-right candidate, Krzysztof Bosak.

Bosak belongs to a party called Confederation, which Law and Justice leaders have denounced as pro-Kremlin and anti-Semitic, but whose votes Duda has been seeking. “I see them as the most pro-Russian force in Poland,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor of Visegrad Insight, a policy journal focused on Central Europe. “They are anti-American, they are anti-Jewish. They accuse everyone of conspiracies to take away money from Poland.”

Public television broadcaster, TVP, flush with an additional $500 million of funding approved by Duda in the spring, has been airing a stream of positive news stories casting him as the defender of Polish families and Trzaskowski as someone who would sell them out.

A recurring allegation on the prime-time evening news has been that Trzaskowski would take away the popular social benefits and give the money to Jewish groups seeking reparations for prewar property.

Trzaskowski has called for a tolerant and inclusive society and vowed to stop a further erosion of judicial independence under Law and Justice, while also promising to preserve his rivals’ popular welfare programs.

On Tuesday, he accused Duda of running a “cynical campaign against those people on the margins,” vowing to “stand on the side of those being attacked.” The divide is so deep that the two could not agree to the conditions for a debate this week. Trzaskowski refused to debate Duda on the state broadcaster, while Duda refused to go on an independent U.S.-owned broadcaster, TVN.

The result was that each candidate held his own show, each alone in a friendly TV studio in different cities, taking questions at a “debate” as a lectern labeled with the rival’s name stood empty. In recent days, Duda and his allies have lashed out at foreign-owned media, raising concerns about press freedom.

U.S. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher intervened Monday in defense of TVN, now owned by Discovery Inc., after a former ruling party spokeswoman insinuated the broadcaster is tied to shadowy former communist interests. Mosbacher accused the official of lying.

Duda lashed out at partly German owned tabloid that reported on his pardon of a convicted sex offender, and also against a German foreign correspondent in Poland for critical coverage. He alleged “a German attack in these elections.”

“The Germans want to choose the president in Poland? I will not allow this!” Duda said at a rally. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin on Monday that “the German government obviously doesn’t influence the presidential elections of our Polish neighbors.”

“We likewise don’t try to influence the work of German foreign correspondents. They do their job within the framework of press freedom,” Seibert said. The election was originally scheduled for May but postponed due the coronavirus pandemic, with over 36,000 confirmed infections and 1,500 dead in Poland. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last week urged older Poles — Duda’s base — to vote.

He said the virus is waning and “there is nothing to be afraid of.”

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Exit poll: Polish presidential vote headed for runoff

June 29, 2020

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s conservative president, Andrzej Duda, was the frontrunner in Sunday’s election, but fell short of the 50% of votes needed to win in the first round, according to the projection of an exit poll.

The results, if confirmed, pave the way for what is building into a very tight race in July 12 runoff that will most likely pit the populist incumbent against the centrist Warsaw mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, who was in second place.

Whether Duda ultimately wins a second five-year term in two weeks’ time will determine whether the ruling nationalist party that backs him, Law and Justice, keeps its near-monopoly on political power in Poland.

The party has been in conflict with the European Union over laws that have given it control over top courts and key judicial bodies, something the 27-nation bloc has denounced as an erosion of democratic European values.

Since the Polish president has the power to veto laws, Duda winning a second term is crucial to the party as it seeks to continue to reshape the nation’s laws in line with its conservative worldview. The pro-EU Trzaskowski has vowed to block any new laws that violate constitutional norms.

In a speech to cheering supporters late Sunday in the town of Lowicz, west of Warsaw, Duda noted that his result was better than in the first round five years ago. “I have this result after five years of being in politics, of being criticized in many ways, attacked, of taking difficult decisions,” Duda said. “After these five years many more people voted for me.”

According to the projection by the Ipsos polling firm, Duda won 41.8% and Trzaskowski 30.4% in Sunday’s vote. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Poland’s state electoral commission has said it would release the final official results by Wednesday evening.

The candidate with the third most votes according to the exit poll was Szymon Holownia, a TV personality and journalist who had once studied to be a priest. He was projected by the Ipsos poll to have 13.3%. Holownia is unaffiliated with any party and generated enthusiasm among some Poles tired of years of bickering between Law and Justice and Civic Platform, the country’s two main parties.

A far-right nationalist candidate, Krzysztof Bosak, was projected by the exit poll to win 7.4% of the vote, and his voters would also be up for grabs in the runoff. In his speech to supporters late Sunday, Duda lost no time in reaching out to supporters of other candidates, saying he shares some views with those on the left, but making particular mention of Bosak.

Duda said there is “very little that separates” him from Bosak and that ”we are of a similar mind on very many issues.” Trzaskowski told his supporters that it was good news the majority opposed Duda.

“I want to say clearly to all these citizens – I will be your candidate. I will be the candidate of change,” he said. A left-wing politician who was Poland’s first openly gay presidential candidate, Robert Biedron, was projected to win 2.9%, while an agrarian candidate, Wladyslaw Kosiak-Kamysz had 2.6% in the exit poll. All other candidates in a field of 11 polled even lower.

The vote had been scheduled for May 10 but was postponed in a chaotic political and legal battle as the ruling party pressed to hold it despite the pandemic. In April, Duda had very high support and was expected then to win in a single round. He was helped by adulatory coverage in state media and the inability of other candidates to campaign.

But as restrictions eased, Trzaskowski replace an earlier candidate fielded by his Civic Platform party who had dismal poll numbers, adding a new dynamic and suspense into the race. Poland hasn’t been as badly hit by the pandemic as many countries in Western Europe, and most people voted in person, wearing masks and observing other hygiene rules. There was also a mail-in voting option, and thousands of voters in some southwestern regions with higher virus infection numbers were required to vote by mail.

As of Sunday, Poland had nearly 34,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its 38 million people, with over 1,400 deaths. Duda’s campaign focused on defending traditional values in the mostly Catholic nation while promising to keep raising living standards to Western European levels. He took a position against same-sex marriage and adoption and denounced the LGBT rights movement as a dangerous “ideology.”

That kind of rhetoric — along with the judicial overhaul and the party’s harnessing of public media to promote the government’s image — have raised concerns among some that Poland is following Hungary in eroding democratic norms established after communism collapsed three decades ago.

On the campaign trail, Trzaskowski promised to keep the ruling party’s popular social welfare spending programs while vowing to restore constitutional norms and Poland’s relationship with the EU.

Sunday election in Poland a test for president and populism

June 27, 2020

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, is fighting for a second term in an election Sunday that will test whether he was helped by a campaign that depicted LGBT rights as a dangerous “ideology” and an unconventional last-minute reception by President Donald Trump at the White House.

It will be another electoral test for populist leaders in Europe amid the coronavirus pandemic. Last weekend, Serbia’s autocratic right-wing president, Aleksandar Vucic, strengthened his hold on power there in a parliamentary election that was boycotted by opposition parties.

The Polish election is widely seen as an important test for democracy, in this case in the fifth most populous country in the 27-member European Union. A crowded field of 11 candidates — all men — could make it harder for anyone to reach the required 50% of votes on Sunday, in which case a runoff will be held July 12.

Duda is backed by Law and Justice, a nationalist, conservative party that is popular with many for introducing welfare spending programs. Those policies have eased hardships for older Poles and others left behind in the dramatic economic transformation since communism fell in 1989.

“Poland has changed. It has changed for the better,” Duda said at a rally on Friday, while promising to keep working to make sure Poles achieve Western European living standards. Duda and Law and Justice, both in power since 2015, have also triggered tensions with the EU and provoked repeated street protests at home for controversial laws giving the party control over the top courts and other key judicial bodies.

Duda, 48, who trained as a lawyer, has signed most of those changes into law, and has been derided by his critics as a “Notary” or “The Pen” for approving changes that some legal experts say violate Poland’s own constitution.

The European Union has strongly condemned the judicial laws as violations of democratic standards. This year the U.S.-based group Freedom House downgraded Poland in its ranking from “consolidated democracy” to “semi-consolidated democracy.”

“The destruction of the democratic state of law is close to completion,” said Jaroslaw Kurski, the editor of the liberal daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, in an appeal this week for readers to choose a democratic candidate.

“If we, citizens, democrats, do not mobilize, the next elections will be as ‘democratic’ as in Belarus, Russia or Hungary,” Kurski wrote. According to polls, Duda’s biggest challenge comes from the liberal Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who belongs to the pro-EU and pro-business Civic Platform party.

That party governed from 2007-15, with Donald Tusk as prime minister until 2014, when he left Poland to take on a top leadership role as president of the European Council. Civic Platform oversaw strong economic growth but is now blamed by many for pro-market policies that helped businesses, but allowed poverty to fester and economic inequalities to grow.

On the campaign trail, Trzaskowski, 48, has promised to keep Law and Justice’s popular spending programs while vowing to restore constitutional norms. Trzaskowski entered the race late after an election originally scheduled for May 10 was scrapped due to the pandemic. Duda’s strong support, bolstered by adulatory coverage in public media, began to slip once restrictions were lifted and other candidates could campaign.

As he appeared to be losing support, Duda seized on family values, vowing to protect Polish families from the propagation of “LGBT ideology” in public institutions. LGBT activists held street protests after Duda accused the LGBT rights movement of promoting a viewpoint more dangerous than communism and saying he agreed with another conservative politician who said “LGBT is not people, it’s an ideology.”

Some Polish veterans of World War II who resisted a Nazi German occupation that considered Poles subhuman strongly denounced Duda’s targeting of LGBT people as a new form of dehumanization. Duda dropped that language in recent days, saying at a rally Friday that “in Poland there is place for everyone.”

The election will take place four days after Duda was hosted at the White House by Trump, who praised Poland for its “rule of law.” “He’s doing a terrific job. The people of Poland think the world of him,” Trump said Wednesday at a joint news conference with Duda.

However, the visit to Washington appeared to bring no breakthroughs, and it is not clear if Trump’s apparent endorsement will win over undecided voters.

Joe Biden nears final decision on running mate

August 01, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Joe Biden nears the announcement of his vice presidential choice, the top contenders and their advocates are making final appeals. The campaign hasn’t finalized a date for naming a running mate, but three people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the plans said a public announcement likely wouldn’t happen before the week of Aug. 10. That’s one week before Democrats will hold their convention to officially nominate Biden as their presidential nominee.

Biden said in May that he hoped to name his pick around Aug. 1 and told reporters this week that he would “have a choice in the first week of August.” He notably stopped short of saying when he would announce that choice.

Running mates are often announced on the eve of a convention. As he prepares to make his choice, a committee established to vet possible running mates has provided Biden with briefing materials. Biden will likely soon begin one-on-one conversations with those under consideration, which could be the most consequential part of the process for a presidential candidate who values personal connections.

The leading contenders include California Sen. Kamala Harris, California Rep. Karen Bass and Obama national security adviser Susan Rice. The deliberations remain fluid, however, and the campaign has reviewed nearly a dozen possible running mates.

“For Joe Biden, this is crunch time. After all the vetting, all the investigations into the prospective nominees, it’s now up to Joe. It’s personal,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was vetted for vice president in 2008. “It’s now about his gut feeling.”

Representatives for Biden declined to comment for this story. The selection amounts to the most significant choice Biden has confronted in his nearly five-decade political career. He has pledged to select a woman and is facing calls to choose the first Black woman to compete on a presidential ticket.

Given the historic significance of the moment, some are urging Biden not to let the announcement linger too long. “My sense is that the VP himself, having been through this process, is aware of and mindful of not letting people hang out there too long,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney. “There certainly seems to be a bit of a media frenzy, and I think we have to be aware that at a point, it becomes unfair to the candidates being considered.”

As a decision looms, the camps are jockeying for position. Harris’ allies mobilized this week after Politico reported that the co-chair of the vetting committee, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, was concerned about Harris’ tough debate stage performance and that she hasn’t expressed regret.

Several California elected officials and labor leaders initiated a call with the vetting team to emphasize that Harris has strong support among labor and political leaders in her home state. The call was organized by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and included the mayors of Oakland, Long Beach and Stockton and former Gov. Gray Davis.

“A group of us really felt we needed to organize and speak out and correct the record because she has tremendous support,” Kounalakis said. Beyond emphasizing their strong relationships with Harris, they also pushed back against the idea that Harris wouldn’t be a loyal partner.

Harris, while not directly addressing her vice presidential prospects, told a group of young Black women Friday that it’s common for Black women to face resistance when they exercise their power. “There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you: ‘You are out of your lane,'” she said during the digital summit. “They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. … I’ve had that experience my entire career.”

Biden has sought feedback on his pick from former President Barack Obama, who has provided advice but has insisted the choice is his to make, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

Biden allies say his wife, Jill, and sister, Valerie Biden Owens, are likely to play a key role in the decision, as they have with many of Biden’s biggest political decisions throughout his career. Jill has held online campaign events and fundraisers with virtually all the potential contenders in recent weeks, as has Biden himself, effectively offering the contenders a try-out opportunity with the presumptive Democratic nominee.

On Thursday night, Bass joined Biden for a virtual fundraiser that raked in $2.2 million. She has also taken steps to build her national profile, including providing interviews to multiple outlets over the past week.

On Friday night, Biden held a virtual fundraiser with Elizabeth Warren, who has also been considered as a running mate. Biden said the event raised more than $1.7 million from over 50,000 grassroots donors. That’s about a quarter of the $6 million the Massachusetts senator brought in during her first online fundraiser for the former vice president last month that appealed to higher-dollar donors.

“We’ve known each other a long time. Her fearless work for a just America has transformed lives and inspired millions, including me,” Biden said. “She is something else. You all know her.” Warren said, “This is a time of unprecedented crisis.”

“But I wake up every single day with a heart full of hope and here is why: Vice President Biden is meeting the moment,” she added. The two talked for nearly an hour but did not mention the vice presidential selection process.

Some Biden donors have already begun to plan prospective fundraising events ahead of the formal announcement. Biden’s team expects his running mate to contribute immediately to his fundraising operation. Of the finalists, Harris is thought to be the most formidable traditional fundraiser, while Warren’s ability to attract small-dollar donations from the party’s progressive base is also viewed as a major asset.

Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Will Weissert in Washington, Steve Peoples and Jonathan Lemire in New York, Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.

Biden snags support from prominent Muslim American officials

July 20, 2020

(AP) Several prominent Muslim American elected officials endorsed Joe Biden for president in a letter organized by Emgage Action ahead of an online summit that starts Monday and features the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Among those signing the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, are Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Indiana Rep. Andre Carson, all Democrats. Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, served as a high-profile surrogate for Bernie Sanders before he exited the presidential race in April — making her support for Biden potentially helpful as the former vice president seeks to mobilize Muslim voters this fall.

The letter coincides with an online summit that Emgage Action has titled “Million Muslim Votes,” underscoring its emphasis on boosting Muslim turnout in November. Biden is set to address the gathering on Monday.

“Joe Biden’s presence serves not only to galvanize Muslim Americans to cast their ballots, but to usher in an era of engaging with Muslim American communities under a Biden administration,” Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage Action, said by email.

“We anticipate that a Biden administration would provide Muslim American communities platforms to speak on issues affecting us, represent us within the administration and in policymaking discourses.” The pro-Biden letter from Muslim American elected officials decried a number of President Donald Trump’s domestic and international policies, including his administration’s ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries and his pullout from the Iran nuclear deal.

“Our number one goal is to remove Donald Trump from office and to replace him with someone who can begin to heal our nation,” the letter said. “A Biden administration will move the nation forward on many of the issues we care about,” it said, citing racial justice, affordable health care, climate change and immigration.

The Muslim American officials also praised Biden’s agenda for their communities. Among other goals, Biden has vowed to rescind the Trump administration’s travel ban affecting Muslims “on Day One” if he’s elected.

Other state- and local-level Muslim American officials signing onto the pro-Biden letter hail from several states, including Michigan, where Alzayat said he believes there are more than 150,000 registered Muslim voters. Those numbers in a swing state that Trump won by fewer than 11,000 votes make Emgage’s goal of maximizing Muslim voter turnout especially powerful in Michigan, but the group also has chapters in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

“A lot is at stake,” Alzayat said. “The importance of Muslim American voter participation in this upcoming election cycle is greater than it has ever been.” Youssef Chouhoud, assistant professor of political science at Christopher Newport University, said Biden’s appearance at Monday’s summit was “a very meaningful step” but noted that he didn’t participate in a large Muslim gathering last year addressed by Sanders and another then-presidential candidate, Julián Castro. Both attended a forum held at an Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention.

Many Muslim Americans have particularly lauded Sanders for the way he engaged their communities. “You have this community that is kind of, you know, ripe for political engagement,” Chouhoud said. “Negative enthusiasm” against another Trump term, he added, “is going to be the glue that holds Muslim voters together. And if you make them feel valued, they are much more likely to turn out.”

Omar’s signature on the endorsement letter expands on her statement last week, via Twitter, that she would vote for Biden. New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — another member of the quartet of congresswomen of color, often known by the nickname “the Squad,” who have become progressive luminaries since their arrival in Congress — also has said she would vote for Biden in the fall.

But Ocasio-Cortez, who served on a task force that helped shape a climate change plan designed to unite Biden and Sanders backers, has yet to issue a full-throated Biden endorsement. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, another “Squad” member and former backer of Sanders’ presidential bid, was conspicuously absent from the Emgage Action-organized letter.

Farooq Mitha, senior adviser for Muslim engagement with Biden’s campaign, said reaching out to Muslim American voters is a priority for Biden, pointing to his own appointment as an example. The campaign has hosted events with Muslim Americans and met with community leaders over the past months, he said.

“A Biden presidency offers Muslims an opportunity to be engaged with government, rather than being shut out like many other groups that have been alienated and demonized by the Trump administration,” he said in response to emailed questions. “Muslim communities can have an outsized impact in many states and we are working every day to earn their support.”

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Democrats warn against overconfidence in fight against Trump

June 27, 2020

(AP) President Donald Trump is entering the final four-month stretch before Election Day presiding over a country that faces a public health crisis, mass unemployment and a reckoning over racism. His Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is raking in cash. And a series of national and battleground polls suggests growing obstacles to Trump’s reelection.

But the election is far from locked in. Biden and his leading supporters are stepping up warnings to Democrats to avoid becoming complacent. Former President Barack Obama and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer insist that plenty could change between now and Nov. 3 and that the party must be vigilant against Trump, who knows few boundaries when it comes to his political foes.

“We understand that what happens five months before the election and what happens at the election can be very different things,” Whitmer said. Michigan was one of the Midwestern states that Trump carried by a razor-thin margin in 2016, helping him win the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote. Other Democrats in the state say the strength of the president’s support shouldn’t be underestimated.

“If the election were held today, I think Biden would win Michigan,” said Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell. “But the Trump supporters are out there, and they’re still intense.” Obama underscored that point this week during his first joint fundraiser with Biden.

“We can’t be complacent or smug or suggest that somehow it’s so obvious that this president hasn’t done a good job,” Obama told thousands of donors who gathered online. “He won once, and it’s not like we didn’t have a good clue as to how he was going to operate the last time.”

Democrats have reason to be cautious. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton was leading by wide margins nationally and in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — the very states that ultimately put Trump over the top. But in the final weeks before the election, Republicans coalesced around their nominee, leading to his upset win.

Trump is aiming for a repeat this year. He is stoking culture wars on health care and race relations. After warning that the 2016 election would be “rigged” against him, Trump said without evidence this week that the fall campaign would be the “most corrupt election ever.”

Trump and many of his GOP allies, meanwhile, are working to squelch the expansion of absentee voting, which they worry would hand Democrats an advantage, despite no evidence supporting that. Many Republicans are quietly grim about the trends. But some are comforted by the same factors that give Democrats pause.

“I’ve always thought it was going to be razor-thin in Wisconsin, and in turn, across the nation,” said former Gov. Scott Walker, who survived a bitter 2012 recall election and 2014 reelection before losing a third nail-biter in 2018.

Trump’s fundraising and organizing still dwarfs those of Biden, who has named state-based staff in just three battlegrounds: Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina. When Biden announced his Wisconsin team Wednesday, Trump’s campaign retorted that its 2016 operation there never closed and already this year has trained 3,200 volunteers, held 750 “MAGA Meet-ups” and made 6 million voter contacts, which means their targets have been reached multiple times already.

Still, the current dynamics don’t fit seamlessly with 2016. Trump benefited four years ago from Clinton being almost as unpopular as he was. And as a first-time candidate, Trump took advantage of his disruptive brand. It’s harder to be the anti-establishment outsider from the Oval Office.

Trump’s Gallup job approval rating stands at 39% this month, putting him in dangerous territory historically. Since World War II, all incumbent presidents who lost were at 45% or lower in Gallup polls conducted in June of their reelection year. Only Harry Truman, at 40% in 1948, managed a comeback win. Trump’s ahead of one-term presidents Jimmy Carter (32% in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (37% in 1992). But he’s behind Obama’s 46% in 2012 and George W. Bush’s 49% in 2004.

Trump has broken precedent before. Still, in Biden, Trump faces an opponent with a stronger standing among some groups of voters, especially independents, than Clinton had. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez pointed to the 2018 midterms and special elections since Trump’s inauguration as proof that voters are “fired up” to oust Trump and “take nothing for granted.”

Ohio Democratic Chair David Pepper, whose state went for Trump by a surprisingly wide margin in 2016, said Democrats are better organized this year. He described 2016 as “top down,” with Clinton’s national lieutenants dictating details regardless of DNC or state parties.

Pepper noted Biden’s first campaign manager, Greg Schultz, is now based at the DNC. Pepper described a recent call Schultz held with state party chairs nationwide. The theme from Schultz, he said: “What do you need? What lessons are there from 2016?”

Still, Dingell noted Biden hasn’t yet installed a state director in Michigan, where she described Democratic “factions” as difficult to corral. While Trump animates the left, Dingell warned that Democrats haven’t closed the deal with alienated moderates and can unwittingly help Trump expand his white base.

“This ‘defund the police’ stuff is not the answer,” she said, referring to the rallying cry of activists who want to shift resources and responsibilities away from armed law enforcement after police killings of Black men. Biden doesn’t back “defunding” efforts, but Dingell said Trump can exploit the sloganeering.

Walker hinged a Trump comeback less on campaign tactics and more on “people’s health and the health of the economy and the stability of the country.” If that improves, Walker said, “I think the president’s in a good position.”

That’s the way top Democrats want their voters to see it, too. “In any scenario, ignore the polls and assume this is going to be super close,” said David Plouffe, an architect of Obama’s two campaigns. And if that caution yields a wider Biden win, Plouffe said, then it means more Democrats in Congress and statehouses around the country: “Let’s win by every vote we can.”

Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe in Washington and Steve Peoples in Montclair, N.J., contributed to this report.

Former president who brought direct elections to Taiwan dies

July 31, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, who brought direct elections and other democratic changes to the self-governed island despite missile launches and other fierce saber-rattling by China, has died. He was 97.

Taipei Veterans General Hospital said Lee died Thursday evening after suffering from infections, cardiac problems and organ failure since being hospitalized in February. Lee strove to create a separate, non-Chinese identity for Taiwan, angering not only China, which considers the island part of its territory, but also members of his Nationalist Party who hoped to return victorious to the mainland.

Lee later openly endorsed formal independence for the island but illness in his later years prompted him to largely withdraw from public life. “President Lee’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratic journey was irreplaceable and his death is a great loss for the country,” current President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement.

Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalists, who earlier served in Lee’s Cabinet, said Lee’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratization “deserves recognition from the people.” “Although former President Lee’s political philosophy has undergone tremendous changes after his resignation, former President Ma is still grateful for his dedication to the country and believes that history will have a fair and objective evaluation,” a statement from Ma’s office said.

Physically imposing and charismatic, Lee spanned Taiwan’s modern history and was native to the island, unlike many who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war. At times gruff, at times personable, he left little doubt he was the man in charge in almost any setting.

“A leader must be tough and strong enough so he can put an end to disputes and chaotic situations,” he wrote in his autobiography. He was born in a farming community near Taipei on Jan 15, 1923, near the midpoint of Japan’s half-century colonial rule. The son of a Japanese police aide, he volunteered in the Imperial Japanese Army and returned to Taiwan as a newly commissioned second lieutenant to help man an anti-aircraft battery.

He earned degrees in Japan and Taiwan, as well as at Iowa State University and Cornell University in New York. He worked for the U.S.-sponsored Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, which sought to encourage land reform and modernize Taiwanese agriculture. He was a member of overwhelmingly Buddhist Taiwan’s Christian minority.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, noting Lee’s close ties with Japan, praised him for his contributions to bolster friendship between Japan and Taiwan. “Many Japanese people have developed special attachment to President Lee as a leader who had established freedom, democracy and universal values in Taiwan and cornerstone of Japan-Taiwan relation,(asterisk) Abe said Friday.

In 1971, Lee joined the governing Nationalist Party. As a descendant of the people who migrated to the island from China in the 17th and 18th centuries, he was part of the party’s effort to broaden its base beyond the 1949 arrivals from the mainland. He was Taipei mayor, Taiwan province governor and vice president before succeeding to the presidency in 1988.

In his early years as president, Lee met significant resistance from Nationalist hard-liners who favored the party’s tradition of mainlander domination and resented Lee’s native status. He beat back the resistance, largely by giving his detractors important political positions.

In 1990, Lee signaled his support for student demands for direct elections of Taiwan’s president and vice president and the end of reserving legislative seats to represent districts on the Chinese mainland. The following year he oversaw the dismantling of emergency laws put into effect by Chiang Kai-shek’s government, effectively reversing the Nationalists’ long-standing goal of returning to the mainland and removing the Communists from power.

Communist China saw the democratic steps as a direct threat to its claim to Taiwan, and its anger was exacerbated when Lee visited the United States in 1995. To Beijing, Lee’s visit to Cornell signaled the United States was willing to accord special recognition to the ruler of a “renegade” Chinese province.

The U.S. made sure Lee did not meet with high-ranking American officials, including then-President Bill Clinton, but its attempts to dampen Chinese anger were unsuccessful. China soon began a series of threatening military maneuvers off the coast of mainland Fujian province that included the firing of missiles just off Taiwan’s coast. More missiles were fired immediately before the March 1996 presidential elections, and the U.S. response was to send aircraft carrier battle groups to Taiwan’s east coast in a show of support. Taiwanese were uncowed and the elections went ahead, with Lee victorious.

In a celebrated interview in late 1996, Lee declared that relations between Taiwan and China had the character of relations between two separate states. This was heresy, not only in the eyes of Beijing, but also for many Nationalists, who continued to see Taiwan as part of China, and looked forward to eventual union between the sides, though not necessarily under Communist control.

In 2000, Taiwan elected Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party as president, ending a half-century of Nationalist monopoly. His election was virtually guaranteed by a split in the Nationalist Party, which had two representatives in the race. The retiring Lee had supported one of them but was still blamed for the split, and the party moved to expel him.

In 2001, supporters of Lee formed a new pro-independence party. The Taiwan Solidarity Union also wanted to break the cultural and political connection between the island and the mainland. Lee himself backed away from wanting a formal declaration of independence for Taiwan, insisting it already was, given the island was not Chinese Communist-controlled.

In 2012, he backed independence-minded candidate Tsai of the DPP, who lost to Ma, an avatar of closer ties between China and Taiwan. Tsai ran again and was elected in 2016, upping tensions again with China. Lee was ailing by that time and played little role in the election. Tsai won re-election this year by a healthy margin over her Nationalist challenger.

Lee is survived by his wife of seven decades, Tseng Wen-hui, and their two daughters. A son died in 1982 from cancer. There was no immediate announcement about funeral arrangements.

Belarus detains 33 Russian contractors ahead of election

July 29, 2020

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The authoritarian leader of Belarus accused Russia of harboring “dirty intentions” Wednesday after his national intelligence agency detained more than 30 Russian private military contractors ahead of Belarus’ presidential election.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term in the Aug. 9 election, has repeatedly accused Russia of trying to force Belarus to abandon its post-Soviet independence. Throughout his 26 years of iron-fisted rule, Lukashenko has relied on subsidies and political support from Moscow but fiercely resisted Russia’s efforts to gain control over Belarus’ economic assets.

The arrest of dozens of Russians accused of planning to destabilize Belarus amid election campaigning pushes political tensions between the countries to a new high. Some observers see the move as a campaign stunt by the 65-year-old president.

State news agency BelTA said a SWAT team from the Belarusian State Security Committee, still known by its Soviet-era name KGB, detained 32 people from private Russian military firm Wagner overnight at a sanitarium outside the capital of Minsk.

Another person was detained in the country’s south, reported BelTA, which published a list of the detained Russians. Yulia Goncharova, the spokeswoman for Belarus’ top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, confirmed the detentions but refrained from further comment.

Belarusian state television broadcast footage of the SWAT officers putting the handcuffed Russians wearing only shorts face down in their rooms. The Russian Embassy in Belarus had no immediate comment, saying it hadn’t received official information about the detentions.

In televised remarks from a Security Council meeting, Belarusian KGB Chairman Valery Vakulchik reported to Lukashenko that the detainees were Wagner members. The Belarusian president then chastised Russia for trying to cover up its “dirty intentions” and instructed his officials to ask Russia for an official explanation.

“It’s necessary to immediately ask the relevant Russian structures to explain what’s going on,” Lukashenko said. The Wagner company, linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

Security Council secretary Andrei Ravkov noted that there were snipers and explosives experts among the detainees, and he said in view of that Belarusian authorities would strengthen security at campaign events. Controls on the border with Russia will also be tightened, he said.

Ravkov said that 14 of the detainees had fought on the side of Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. Belarus’ Foreign Ministry will invite the Ukrainian ambassador to discuss the issue, he said. BelTA said that Belarusian law enforcement agencies were acting on a tip that over 200 militants had arrived in Belarus on a mission to destabilize the country during the election campaign.

Alexander Alesin, an independent military expert based in Minsk, said that Belarus long has provided a transit corridor for sensitive Russian operations abroad. “The Russians have used Belarus to deploy special troops to other countries for many years,” Alesin said. “The Belarusian security agencies knew all about it and until recently they offered help and assistance to the Russians.”

Alesin asserted that the detentions appear to be part of Lukashenko’s efforts to mobilize support before the vote. “The authorities are using Wagner members to scare people before the vote by inventing a thriller about Russian militants,” Alesin argued. “The footage of the detentions looks silly: If the 33 Wagner people were indeed planning to stage riots they wouldn’t have worn combat fatigues and T-shirts with the word ”Russia” and stayed all in one place.”

He added that the Belarusian leader may also have wanted to vent his anger with the Kremlin: “With the detentions, Lukashenko also wants to show Russia its place as relations with the Kremlin have worsened after Russia sharply cut its subsidies.”

The president is expected to easily win reelection on Aug. 9 despite a wave of opposition protests fueled by public fatigue with his rule and a painful economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The World Bank has forecast that the Belarusian economy will shrink by at least 4% this year, the largest decline in a quarter-century.

Belarusian television reported that Belarus-born Russian political consultant Vitaly Shklyarov was also detained Wednesday. It charged that Shklyarov was helping to mobilize opposition supporters. In the past, Shklyarov worked as a political consultant in the United States and Russia.

Lukashenko, a former state farm director, has led Belarus since he became the the ex-Soviet nation’s first president in July 1994. During that time, he has cracked down on dissent and free media in the country of 9.5 million people and extended his rule through elections that the West criticized as rigged.

Belarus election officials have barred the president’s two main challengers from appearing on the ballot. One of the challengers, Viktor Babariko, the former head of a major Russia-controlled bank, has been jailed on money laundering and tax evasion charges.

Another, Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States and the founder of a thriving high-tech development park, was denied registration after authorities invalidated some of the signatures he had collected to qualify.

Tsepkalo fled to Russia with his children after receiving a warning that his arrest was imminent and the authorities were planning to strip him of his parental rights and take his children away. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of jailed opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, is the only opposition candidate to have been allowed on the ballot.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Supreme Court’s abortion ruling raises stakes for election

June 30, 2020

NEW YORK (AP) — Supporters of abortion rights are elated, foes of abortion dismayed and angry, but they agree on one consequence of the Supreme Court’s first major abortion ruling since President Donald Trump took office: The upcoming election is crucial to their cause.

Both sides also say Monday’s ruling is not the last word on state-level abortion restrictions. One abortion rights leader evoked the image of playing whack-a-mole as new cases surface. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a Louisiana law seeking to require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. For both sides in the abortion debate, it was viewed as a momentous test of the court’s stance following Trump’s appointments of two conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Both justices joined the conservative bloc’s dissent that supported the Louisiana law. But they were outvoted because Chief Justice John Roberts concurred with the court’s four more liberal justices. The ruling was yet another major decision in which the conservative-leaning court failed to deliver an easy victory to the right in culture war issues during an election year; one ruling protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment, and the other rejected Trump’s effort to end protections for young immigrants.

Now, anti-abortion leaders say there’s an urgent need to reelect Trump so he can appoint more justices like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Abortion rights activists, with equal fervor, say it’s crucial to defeat Trump and end Republican control of the Senate, where the GOP majority has confirmed scores of conservative judges during Trump’s term.

The Louisiana law “was an obvious challenge to our reproductive freedom, and it points to the urgent need to vote for pro-choice candidates from the top of the ballot all the way down,” said Heidi Sieck of #VOTEPROCHOICE, an online advocacy group. “Do this in primaries, do this in runoffs, do this in special elections and do this in the general in November.”

James Bopp Jr., general counsel for National Right to Life, made a similar appeal, from an opposite vantage point. “This decision demonstrates how difficult it is to drain the D.C. swamp and how important it is that President Trump gets reelected so that he may be able to appoint more pro-life justices,” Bopp said.

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life and a member of the Trump campaign’s Catholic voter outreach project, noted that two of the liberal justices — Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer — are the oldest members of the court.

“Nobody can predict the future, but who’s going to name their replacements when the time comes? That is a question that motivates a lot of voters,” Pavone said. Anti-abortion activists swiftly made clear that Monday’s ruling would not dissuade them from continuing to push tough abortion restrictions through state legislatures.

In recent years, several states have enacted near-total bans on abortion only to have them blocked by the courts. However, Texas Right to Life urged lawmakers there to press ahead with a proposed three-pronged measure that would start with a ban on late-term abortions and proceed to a total ban.

Monday’s ruling “highlights the need for pro-life states to pass laws that directly protect pre-born children in new and dynamic ways rather than get distracted on regulating the corrupt abortion industry,” a Texas Right to Life statement said.

Mike Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, questioned the wisdom of pushing now for sweeping bans. He noted that an Ohio bill sharply restricting late-term abortions had taken effect, while the courts blocked a measure passed last year that would ban most abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

“We have to be methodical, strategic, and take an incremental approach,” he said. “A lot of people want to go from 0 to 60 — you usually end up with nothing.” The president of a national anti-abortion group, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, said she and her allies would encourage states to continue pressing forward with proposed restrictions that stopped short of near-total bans.

“These measures are extremely popular in some battleground states,” she said. “Prioritizing them is part of our electoral strategy.” Abortion rights advocate Nancy Northup, the CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, acknowledged that Monday’s ruling “will not stop those hell-bent on banning abortion.”

“We will continue to fight state by state, law by law to protect our constitutional right to abortion,” she said. “But we shouldn’t have to keep playing whack-a-mole.” She urged Congress to pass a bill called The Women’s Health Protection Act, which seeks to bolster women’s ability to access abortion even in states that pass laws seeking to restrict that access. The measure was introduced in May 2019 and has strong Democratic support — but no chance of passage for now due to Republican opposition.

From the other side of the debate, there also are dreams of a congressional solution. Michael New, an abortion opponent who teaches social research at Catholic University of America, said some legal experts in the anti-abortion community believe Congress could find ways to restrict or ban abortion while circumventing the courts — for example by establishing constitutional legal protections for unborn children.

But any such measures are nonstarters for now, given that Democrats in Congress would overwhelmingly oppose them. Whatever the strategy, New said, it would be important for the anti-abortion movement to be unified. He recalled that internal debates decades ago over how to draft a human life amendment to the Constitution did a great deal of damage to the anti-abortion cause.

Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser to the Trump administration, said Monday’s court ruling would intensify interest in the election among religious conservatives who are a key part of Trump’s base.

“Conservatives know they are on the one-yard-line,” Moore tweeted. “Enthusiasm is already unprecedented, evangelical turnout will be too.”

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