Russians set to back Putin’s move to extend his rule

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is set to win approval from voters for constitutional changes that would allow him to potentially extend his 20-year rule until 2036.

Hours before the week-long vote closed on Wednesday, Russia’s election commission said in a statement published on its website that, according to preliminary results, more than 70 per cent of voters had approved Mr Putin’s changes. The amendments include a ban on gay marriage and enshrining Russian as the “language of the state-forming ethnic group”. Fuller results are expected after polls shut at 9pm Moscow time.

Announcing the results while polls remain open is illegal in normal elections. But little was normal about the constitutional vote, which was held over a seven-day period that organisers said would help ensure social distancing at the polls.

Officials organised improvised polling booths outdoors, brought ballot boxes to voters’ doors and allowed some Russians to vote online. State television ran interviews with members of European far-right parties who gushed about the vote they had been invited to observe. This is despite strict quarantine regulations for people who enter the country.

Mr Putin announced the changes as part of a surprise government overhaul in January and rushed them through parliament in March after unveiling the provision to “reset the clock” on his presidential term limits at the last minute. The constitutional changes give him the right to run for two more terms when his mandate ends in 2024.

The pandemic forced Mr Putin to postpone the vote, originally set for April, but did not deter him from holding it even as Russia’s daily coronavirus cases remain around 6,000. The country’s coronavirus death toll stood at 9,536 on Wednesday.

A woman casts her ballot at Kazansky railway station in Moscow A woman casts her ballot at Kazansky railway station in Moscow © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

Analysts say the Kremlin feared that public discontent with Mr Putin — already growing before the pandemic due to stagnant living standards — could escalate because of anger at his handling of the outbreak.

The patchy response to the pandemic and modest support package for businesses forced to close during the lockdown sent his approval ratings lower.

Unofficial exit polls by opposition groups showed that voters in Moscow narrowly rejected the changes and soundly defeated them in St Petersburg, Russia’s two largest cities and bastions of anti-Putin sentiment.

“It was something he had openly denied preparing to do in the past. It’s clear that he is crossing a red line he has been reluctant to cross before,” Alexander Baunov, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter about Mr Putin’s decision to extend his term. “Beyond this red line is a vacuum of legitimacy, and he needs a popular vote to confirm the legitimacy of this unprecedented, even by Russian standards, move.”

Mr Putin largely avoided discussing the clause to extend his rule, focusing instead on a hodgepodge of amendments seen as a sop to nationalist sentiment.

“I am sure that all of you, when you make this important decision [to vote], think foremost about your family members and rely on the values that unite us: truth and justice, respect for the working man and the elderly, the family and caring for children, their health, their moral and spiritual upbringing,” Mr Putin said in an address on Tuesday. “The amendments [ . . . ] enshrine these values and principles as the highest, unconditional constitutional guarantees.”

Many of his own officials, however, left little doubt as to the vote’s true significance. Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, suggested the Kremlin go further still.

“I always say: we should make Vladimir Putin president for life,” Mr Kadyrov told local officials on Tuesday. “Who can replace him today? There is no political leader on that scale globally.”