Russians cast early votes in ballot to extend Putin’s rule

MOSCOW (AFP) – Russians were casting early ballots yesterday in a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms that could see President Vladimir Putin remain in power until 2036.

Election officials opened polling stations in the lead-up to the official voting day on July 1 to reduce the risk of overcrowding that could spread coronavirus infections.

Masks and disinfectant gels have been made available to 110 million eligible voters across 10 time zones, and Russians in Vladivostok in the Far East cast ballots wearing masks as election officials distributed ballot papers in gloves.

The Kremlin reluctantly postponed the vote that was originally scheduled for April 22 as COVID-19 infections increased and officials imposed restrictions to slow the pandemic.

Putin – in power as president or prime minister since 1999 – introduced the reforms to the 1993 constitution in January.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow on Wednesday. PHOTO: AP

They were hastily adopted by both houses of Parliament and regional lawmakers and the outcome of the referendum is seen as a foregone conclusion.

Putin insisted that Russians vote on the changes even though a referendum is not legally required, arguing a plebiscite would give the amendments legitimacy.

Opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny has slammed the vote as a populist ploy designed to give Putin the right to be “president for life”.

“It is a violation of the constitution, a coup,” he has said.

Among other changes, the reforms would reset Putin’s presidential term-limit clock to zero, allowing him to run two more times and potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036.

Under current rules, the 67-year-old’s current term in the Kremlin would expire in 2024.

Rallies scheduled in Moscow against the move in April were barred under virus restrictions against public gatherings.

The website of the “NO” campaign that collected signatures of Russians opposed to the reforms was blocked by a Moscow court in March, forcing it to relaunch.

Sergey Panov, a 45-year-old voter in Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg, said he drove to his polling station before work specially to vote against the reforms.

“This is the only thing I can do to keep my conscience clear and so I know that I did everything I could, even if it doesn’t affect the final result,” he told AFP.