Russians are set to approve constitutional reforms on Wednesday denounced by critics as a manoeuvre to allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in the Kremlin for life.
The changes were passed weeks ago by Russia’s parliament and copies of the new constitution are already on sale in bookshops, but Putin says a nationwide vote ending Wednesday is essential to give legitimacy to the plans.
The reforms include conservative and populist measures — like guaranteed minimum pensions and an effective ban on gay marriage — but crucially for Putin will also reset presidential term limits allowing him to potentially remain in power until 2036.
The Kremlin pulled out all the stops to encourage turnout, with polls extended over nearly a week, the last day of voting declared a national holiday and prizes — including apartments and cars — on offer to voters.
Initially planned for April 22, the referendum was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic but rescheduled after Putin said the epidemic had peaked and officials began reporting lower numbers of new cases.
There is little doubt the reforms will be approved, with a state-run exit poll of more than 163,000 voters this week showing 76 percent in favour.
Results are expected to be announced after the last polling stations close at 1800 GMT.
Putin says the changes are needed to ensure stability and cement Russian values in the face of pernicious Western influences.
‘Stability, security, prosperity’
“We are voting for the country… we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren,” he said Tuesday in a final appeal to voters.
“We can ensure stability, security, prosperity and a decent life only through development, only together and by ourselves.”
State television showed Putin voting on Wednesday at his usual polling station at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he was handed a ballot by an electoral worker wearing a surgical mask and gloves.
Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Putin was not wearing any protective gear.
At a polling station in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, 79-year-old Valentina Kungurtseva told AFP she supported the reforms.
“For us as pensioners, it’s very important that they will increase our pension every year,” she said, adding that she had no problem with resetting presidential terms.
“As long as we have a good president, life will be good,” she said.
But Oleg Dubov, a 55-year-old engineer, said there was no need for the amendments or for Putin to be able to run again.
“We should not stagnate,” he said. “I believe there should be change, even if I respect him very much and value him as president.”
Critics say the reforms are a cover for Putin to extend his rule after 20 years in power.
Chief opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny said Putin, 67, wants to make himself “president for life” and has called for a boycott.
But the opposition — divided, weakened by years of political repression and with little access to state-controlled media — has failed to mount a serious “no” campaign. Restrictions on mass gatherings imposed by the coronavirus have also prevented demonstrations.
Falling approval ratings
Golos, an independent election monitor, says it has received hundreds of complaints of violations, including people voting more than once and claims employers are putting pressure on staff to cast ballots.
The Kremlin is keen to see a high voter turnout and makeshift polling stations cropped across the country, including some in buses, tents and on street benches that were ridiculed on social media.
Putin’s approval rating has suffered in recent months, in part over early mistakes in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, and stood at 60 percent in June according to pollster Levada, down 20 points from the months after his re-election in 2018.
Analysts say Putin wanted to get the vote over with before Russians — already suffering from several years of falling incomes — are hit by the full economic impact of the pandemic.
Putin said in a recent interview that he had not made up his mind about whether to run again and suggested part of the reason for the presidential reset was to allow Russia’s political elite to focus on governing instead of “hunting for possible successors”.