Russian voters agree to let Putin seek 2 more terms

MOSCOW — (AP) — Russian voters approved changes to the constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to potentially hold power until 2036, but the weeklong plebiscite that concluded Wednesday was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.

With three-fourths of all precincts counted, 77.6% voted for the constitutional amendments, according to election officials.

For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout without increasing crowds casting ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic — a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome.

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A massive propaganda campaign and the opposition’s failure to mount a coordinated challenge helped Putin get the result he wanted, but the plebiscite could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

The amendments that would allow Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030, are part of a package of constitutional changes that also outlaw same-sex marriage, mention “a belief in God as a core value” and emphasize the primacy of Russian law over international norms.

Voters could not cast ballots on the individual amendments, only on the entire group.

Nationwide turnout was reported at 65% of the electorate.

Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned the turnout figures.

“We look at neighboring regions, and anomalies are obvious — there are regions where the turnout is artificially (boosted), there are regions where it is more or less real,” Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, told The Associated Press.

Putin voted at a Moscow polling station, dutifully showing his passport to the election worker. His face was uncovered, unlike most of the other voters who were offered free masks at the entrance.

The vote completes a convoluted saga that began in January, when Putin first proposed constitutional changes including broadening the powers of parliament and redistributing authority among the branches of government. Those proposals stoked speculation he might seek to become parliamentary speaker or chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.

His intentions became clear only hours before a vote in parliament, when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, proposed letting him run two more times. The proposed changes were quickly passed by the Kremlin-controlled legislature.

The 67-year-old Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants focused on their work instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors.”

Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s push to hold the vote despite the fact that Russia has thousands of new coronavirus infections each day reflected his potential vulnerabilities.

“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”

Even though the parliament's approval was enough to make it law, the 67-year-old Russian president put his constitutional plan to voters to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the changes. But then the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing him to postpone the April 22 plebiscite.

The delay made Putin’s campaign blitz lose momentum and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during the outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59%, the lowest level since he came to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.

Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin had faced a difficult dilemma: Holding the vote sooner would have brought accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it raised the risks of defeat. “Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,” she said.

In Moscow, several activists briefly lay on Red Square, forming the number “2036” with their bodies in protest before police stopped them. Some others in Moscow and St. Petersburg staged one-person pickets and police didn’t intervene.

Several hundred opposition supporters later rallied in central Moscow to protest the changes, defying a ban on public gatherings imposed for the coronavirus outbreak. Police didn’t intervene and even handed masks to the participants.

Authorities mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots. Reports surfaced from across the vast country of managers coercing people to vote.

The Kremlin has used other tactics to boost turnout and support for the amendments. Prizes ranging from gift certificates to cars and apartments were offered as an encouragement, voters with Russian passports from eastern Ukraine were bused across the border to vote, and two regions with large number of voters — Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod — allowed electronic balloting.

In Moscow, some journalists and activists said they were able to cast their ballots both online and in person in a bid to show the lack of safeguards against manipulations.

Kremlin critics and independent monitors pointed out that the relentless pressure on voters coupled with new opportunities for manipulations from a week of early voting when ballot boxes stood unattended at night eroded the standards of voting to a striking new low.

In addition to that, the early voting sanctioned by election officials but not reflected in law further eroded the ballot’s validity.

Many criticized the Kremlin for lumping more than 200 proposed amendments together in one package without giving voters a chance to differentiate among them.

“I voted against the new amendments to the constitution because it all looks like a circus,” said Yelena Zorkina, 45, after voting in St. Petersburg. “How can people vote for the whole thing if they agree with some amendments but disagree with the others?"

Putin supporters were not discouraged by being unable to vote separately on the proposed changes. Taisia Fyodorova, a 69-year-old retiree in St. Petersburg, said she voted yes “because I trust our government and the president.”

In a frantic effort to get the vote, polling station workers set up ballot boxes in courtyards and playgrounds, on tree stumps and even in car trunks — unlikely settings derided on social media that made it impossible to ensure a clean vote.

In Moscow, there were reports of unusually high numbers of at-home voters, with hundreds visited by election workers in a matter of hours, along with multiple complaints from monitors that paperwork documenting the turnout was being concealed from them.

At the same time, monitoring the vote became more challenging due to hygiene requirements and more arcane rules for election observers.

The Golos monitoring group pointed out at unusual differences between neighboring regions: in the Siberian republic of Tyva over 73% voted in the first five days, while in the neighboring Irkutsk region, turnout was about 22% and in the neighboring republic of Altai, it was under 33%.

“These differences can be explained only by forcing people to vote in certain areas or by rigging,” Golos said.

Observers warned that the methods used to boost turnout, combined with bureaucratic hurdles that hindered independent monitoring, would undermine the vote's legitimacy.

“There is a big question about the results of this vote,” Melkonyants said, adding that its outcome "can’t really bear any legal standing.”

___

Associated Press writers Irina Titova in St. Petersburg and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (Alexei Druzhinin)
Member of an election commission, wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus prepare to count ballots after voting at a polling station in eastern Siberian city of Chita, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo)
Member of an election commission, wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus prepare to count ballots after voting at a polling station in eastern Siberian city of Chita, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo) (Uncredited)
A woman wears a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection with a sign "No to Putin" during a protest against constitutional amendments at the Palace Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A woman wears a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection with a sign "No to Putin" during a protest against constitutional amendments at the Palace Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) (Dmitri Lovetsky)
A woman, wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus and observing social distancing guidelines, casts her ballot at a polling station with a portrait of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin on the wall in Volgograd, former Stalingrad, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Rogulin)
A woman, wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus and observing social distancing guidelines, casts her ballot at a polling station with a portrait of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin on the wall in Volgograd, former Stalingrad, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Rogulin) (Dmitry Rogulin)
A member of election commission, right, checks the temperature of a voter, both wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP)
A member of election commission, right, checks the temperature of a voter, both wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP) (Sofia Sandurskaya)
People protest against constitutional amendments on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky).
People protest against constitutional amendments on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky). (Dmitri Lovetsky)
A man wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus casts his ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A man wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus casts his ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) (Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin) (Pavel Golovkin)
A woman, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus casts her ballot, observes social distancing guidelines, at a polling station in Grozny, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)
A woman, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus casts her ballot, observes social distancing guidelines, at a polling station in Grozny, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev) (Musa Sadulayev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) (Alexei Druzhinin)
Members of an election commission, wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus count ballots after voting at a polling station in eastern Siberian city of Chita, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo)
Members of an election commission, wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus count ballots after voting at a polling station in eastern Siberian city of Chita, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo) (Uncredited)
A woman, wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus casts her ballot, observes social distancing guidelines, makes a selfie prior to cast her ballot at a polling station with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, right, on the wall in Grozny, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)
A woman, wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus casts her ballot, observes social distancing guidelines, makes a selfie prior to cast her ballot at a polling station with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, right, on the wall in Grozny, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev) (Musa Sadulayev)
A man wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection casts his ballot at a polling station in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A man wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection casts his ballot at a polling station in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) (Dmitri Lovetsky)
A member of the election commission wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection waits for voters at a polling station in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A member of the election commission wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection waits for voters at a polling station in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) (Dmitri Lovetsky)
A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection reads her ballot at a polling station in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection reads her ballot at a polling station in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) (Dmitri Lovetsky)