Vladimir Putin is hours away from seizing power until 2036 as he casts his ballot on final day of ‘rigged’ vote on the future of constitution
- Putin will hit term limit in 2024 but voters are set to back plan to reset his tally
- Package of changes will also increase Putin’s powers over parliament and courts
- Putin, 67, is all but guaranteed to win after massive state propaganda campaign
Vladimir Putin is heading for victory in a referendum that could extend his rule until 2036 as Russia enters its final day of voting today.
The Kremlin strongman would normally reach his term limit in 2024, but voters are set to back a plan to reset his tally to zero and allow him to run for two more terms.
The package of constitutional changes would also increase Putin’s powers to dissolve parliament and expand his influence over courts and prosecutors.
Putin, 67, is all but guaranteed to win the vote after a massive state propaganda campaign and widespread reports of irregularities.
Heading for victory: Vladimir Putin shows his passport to an election worker in Moscow today as he casts his vote in the referendum
The most discussed amendment would reset Putin’s constitutional term-limit clock to zero.
Putin first came to power as prime minister in 1999 under Boris Yeltsin before being elected president in 2000. He served the maximum two consecutive terms between 2000 and 2008 before a four-year stint as prime minister.
He returned to the Kremlin in 2012 for a newly expanded six-year mandate and was re-elected in 2018.
Other constitutional changes expand the role of parliament, but they also strengthen the already-powerful role of the president.
The president will have the right to dissolve parliament if it refuses to support the candidacy of a minister proposed by the head of state three times in a row.
They will also have a greater say over the work of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and prosecutors.
The reform also strengthens the role of the State Council, currently an advisory body.
In line with Putin’s conservative views, the reforms enshrine a mention of Russians’ ‘faith in God’ despite Russia’s long history as a secular country.
The reform also stipulates that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, effectively banning gay marriages.
The changes designate Russian as ‘the language of the people who form the state,’ and senior officials are barred from holding dual citizenship or residence permits in other countries.
The new amendments ban giving away Russian territory and outlaw calls promoting such a move. This amendment would ensure that Russia keeps Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and the Kuril Islands – disputed with Japan for decades.
The amendments also seek to protect the ‘historic truth’ about the country’s role in World War II and honour the memory of ‘the defenders of the fatherland’.
The Russian leader has repeatedly railed against attempts to ‘rewrite’ history and complained that the West does not fully appreciate the huge losses suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II.
The reforms also place the constitution above international law, giving priority to Russian legislation in the case of a contradiction with international statutes.
The constitutional reforms guarantee a minimum wage that should not be below the subsistence level and state pensions regularly adjusted to inflation.
The amendments spell out principles of ‘justice and solidarity between generations’ to ensure the proper functioning of the pension system.
Environmental stipulations include ‘reducing the impact of economic activities’ on nature and enshrine ‘a responsible attitude towards animals’.
The referendum was originally scheduled for April 22 but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Election officials were today taking ballot boxes into hospitals in order to boost turnout, while polling stations were kept open for a week to reduce crowds.
State exit polls have suggested that Putin’s changes will be backed by more than two-thirds of voters, who have been coaxed into voting with prize draws and a campaign highlighting some of the other amendments on the table.
These include a minimum wage and state pensions regularly adjusted to inflation as well as socially conservative measures such as a ban on same-sex marriage.
Authorities have also mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots.
Reports surfaced from many corners of the vast country that managers were coercing people to vote.
By Wednesday morning, the turnout already exceeded 55 per cent, according to election officials.
But Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned official figures showing that in some regions up to 85% of eligible voters had turned out.
Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, called the overall vote numbers ‘suspicious in general.’
‘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,’ Melkonyants said.
The Golos monitoring group noted unusual differences between neighboring regions: in the Siberian republic of Tyva over 73 per cent voted during the first five days, while in the neighboring Irkutsk region the turnout was around 22 per cent and in the neighboring republic of Altai it was under 33 per cent.
‘These differences can be explained only by forcing people to vote in certain areas or by rigging,’ Golos said.
Opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny has slammed the vote as a populist ploy designed to make Putin ‘president for life’.
‘It is a violation of the constitution, a coup,’ he has said.
Monitoring the vote became more challenging due to hygiene requirements and more arcane rules for election observers.
Prizes ranging from gift certificates to cars and apartments were offered as an encouragement, giant billboards went up across Russia and celebrities posted ads for the ‘yes’ vote on social media.
Two regions with large numbers of voters – Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod – allowed electronic balloting and voters with Russian passports from eastern Ukraine were brought across the border in buses to vote.
Putin has yet to confirm whether he will run again in 2024 but his critics are sure that he will.
First named acting president on the final day of the 20th century, Putin won two terms in 2000 and 2004 before stepping aside in 2008 when he reached the limit of two consecutive terms.
After four years as prime minister under Dmitry Medvedev in which many believed Putin still held the real power, Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and won a fourth term in 2018.
There has long been speculation about how he might evade the two-term limit in 2024, including suggestions that he might become prime minister again or chairman of a beefed-up State Council.
Then in January this year, lawmaker Valentina Tereshkova – a Soviet-era cosmonaut who became the first woman in space in 1963 – sprang a surprise by proposing the ‘reset’ measure.
The amendments quickly sailed through the legislature and were approved by Russia’s constitutional court.
Putin, who will have ruled in the Kremlin for longer than Josef Stalin if he stays in power until 2036, has argued that resetting the term count was necessary to prevent people from ‘darting their eyes in search for possible successors instead of normal, rhythmical work.’
He has also compared himself to former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who broke with precedent by winning a third and fourth term during World War II.
An election worker wearing protective gear holds up a mobile ballot box for a patient wearing a mask to cast her ballot in Tver today
A voter wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus casts her ballot at a polling station in Moscow today on the final day of voting in Putin’s referendum
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s unrelenting push to hold the vote despite the fact that Russia is reporting thousands of new coronavirus infections each day reflected the Russian leader’s potential vulnerabilities.
‘Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,’ Pavlovsky said. ‘He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.’
Even though parliamentary approval was enough to make it law, Putin put his constitutional plan to voters in a bid to showcase his broad support and add a stamp of democratic legitimacy to the changes.
His manouevre partially backfired weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the plebiscite.
The delay made Putin’s campaign blitz lose momentum and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew.
Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during Russia’s outbreak have dented Putin’s approval ratings. These sank to 59 per cent during Russia’s outbreak, the lowest level since his ascent to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.
Amid the uncertainty, Putin rescheduled the vote immediately upon seeing the first signs of a slowdown in Russia’s infection rate, although daily cases are still high.
Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin had faced a difficult dilemma.
Holding the vote sooner would have brought accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it further raised the risks of defeat, she said.
‘A late vote could have been lost. Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,’ Schulmann said.
Schulmann argued that the Kremlin’s focus isn’t so much on boosting overall turnout but rather on increasing attendance by public sector workers.
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