Russia has begun voting on constitutional reforms that could allow President Vladimir Putin to serve two other terms in office.
The official vote is scheduled for July 1, but authorities said they would open polling stations a week earlier to stop the overcrowding amid the pandemic.
Opposition activist Alexei Navalny has said the changes will allow Putin to be “president for life.”
Putin, however, has said that they will guarantee Russia’s stability.
Although the president has not publicly said he would run again in 2024 when his current term ends, he has said it is vital that he have the option.
“Otherwise, I know that in two years, instead of working normally at all levels of the state, all eyes will be on the search for possible successors,” he said in an interview earlier this week.
What do people vote on?
Big changes would limit a president’s rule to two six-year terms in total, rather than two consecutive terms, and would reset the clock so that Putin could continue in office after 2024.
In addition to potentially allowing him to lead Russia until 2036, the reforms would give the president the power to nominate the best judges and prosecutors for approval by Russia’s upper house of parliament.
They would also consolidate conservative measures in the constitution, including an effective ban on gay marriage and an affirmation of Russia’s “faith in God”.
And economic changes would also be enshrined, including in the minimum wage and the adjustment of the state pension in line with inflation.
Approximately 110 million voters from Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast to Kamchatka in the Pacific are eligible to vote. Authorities are providing masks and hand sanitizer at polling stations across the country.
Sarah Rainsford of the BBC in Moscow says that great participation is vital for the Kremlin.
Authorities have confirmed that people with Russian passports in eastern Ukraine, controlled by the separatists, will also be able to participate. Last year, President Putin made it easier for residents to obtain Russian passports, and officials estimate that some 150,000 people could participate in rebel-controlled areas of Lugansk and Donetsk.
What the critics say
Navalny, a figurehead of the Russian opposition, called the vote a “coup d’état” and “violation of the constitution.” Some argue that Putin is trying to hold on to power, or give himself the option to stay if he cannot find a suitable successor.
The 67-year-old former KGB agent has led Russia for 20 years, both as president and prime minister. But their popularity levels have declined in recent years thanks to economic struggles and deeply controversial reforms to the pension system.
Putin introduced the reforms to the Russian constitution of 1993 in January, and they have already been adopted in both houses of parliament in Moscow. But the president said a public vote would give legitimacy to the changes, and initially scheduled the poll for April before delaying it due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Activists organized marches to oppose the vote the same month, but authorities banned them, citing rules on public gatherings amid the coronavirus blockade. The courts shut down a website created to collect signatures from people who opposed the vote.
Leading politicians across the country have come out in favor of the changes, and observers believe there is little doubt that the measure will pass. Copies of the new constitution are already on sale in Russian bookstores.
Many have questioned the timing of Russia’s World War II Victory Parade. Tens of thousands of soldiers marched through Moscow on Wednesday, despite the ban on mass gatherings under the closing rules, just a day before the vote began.
What about the coronavirus?
The pandemic has further affected Putin’s position.
Russia has the third highest number of registered infections worldwide, with 613,994 confirmed cases and 8,605 deaths, although critics believe the actual death toll is much higher.
- The nightmare spreads across Russian care homes
- Covid’s ‘catastrophe’ in southern Russia
The latest figures released Thursday showed that there were 7,113 new cases reported in the past 24 hours. In May, Russia reported more than 10,000 new cases per day for more than a week.