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 them legitimacy.
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.
Russia’s election commission said early on Wednesday that after six days of voting turnout was at more than 55 percent. Results were expected after the last polling stations closed 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 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.
Across the country in second city Saint Petersburg, 20-year-old Sergei Goritsvetov said he opposed the reforms but doubted it would make any difference.
“I voted against and I hope there will be many of us, but I don’t know what it will change,” he said. “At least I expressed my opinion.”
Critics say the reforms are a cover for Putin to extend his rule after 20 years in power as either president or prime minister.
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.
– 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.
Election commission chief Ella Pamfilova denied any problems, saying: “During the entire voting period no serious violations… were found.”
Putin’s approval rating has suffered in recent months, in part over early mistakes in the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. It 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 decided 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”.