MOSCOW: Polls opened in Russia on Thursday for a week-long vote on constitutional changes that would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, reports AP.
The vote on a slew of constitutional amendments, proposed by Putin in January, was initially scheduled for April 22, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was later rescheduled for July 1, with polling stations opening a week earlier and staying open for seven days in an effort to avoid crowds on the main voting day.The proposed amendments include a change in the constitution that would allow the 67-year-old Putin, who has ruled Russia for over two decades, to run for two more six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024. Other amendments talk about improving social benefits, define marriage as a union of a man and and a woman and redistribute executive powers within the government, strengthening the presidency.
The changes have already been approved by both houses of parliament, the country’s Constitutional Court and were signed into law by Putin. He insisted that they be put to a vote, even though it is not legally required, in what many see as an effort to put a veneer of democracy on the controversial changes.
Holding the vote in the middle of a pandemic has elicited public health concerns, because Russia is still reporting over 7,000 new virus cases daily and has 613,000 confirmed infections in all, the third-worst caseload in the world.
The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed these concerns, saying that Russia was able to slow down the epidemic and assuring people that all necessary measures have been to ensure the safety of the voters.
After casting his ballot without a mask or gloves in Moscow, former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said the reforms would protect people who had lost income or their jobs due to the pandemic.
They will “ensure targeted support to people, and help families with many children,” he told reporters.Putin said last week he had not decided whether to seek another term, but added that it was important that he have the option of running again.
“We must work and not look for successors,” he said.
With the revised constitution already on sale in Moscow bookstores, the outcome is largely seen as a foregone conclusion.
Experts at state-run pollster VTsIOM this week projected that as many as 71 percent of voters would cast their ballots in favour of the reforms.
Yet the vote comes as Putin is suffering historically low approval ratings over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.
The independent polling group Levada published a survey last month that showed his ratings at an all-time low of 59 percent.
But on top of resetting Putin’s term limits, the reforms promise to enshrine conservative values that the Kremlin hopes will resonate with voters and attract a large turnout.
They include a mention of Russians’ “faith in God” despite a long history as a secular country, and a stipulation effectively banning gay marriage.
The reforms would also consolidate presidential powers by allowing Putin to nominate top officials and guarantee the minimum wage will be no less than the minimum subsistence level.
Ballot leaflets, posters, and billboards throughout Moscow do not mention Putin or lengthening the president’s term limits.
The campaign instead features scenes from family life, like a child kissing her grandmother with the slogan “for a guaranteed retirement”.