Vote that could extend Putin's rule culminates as Russians get cash payments

Critics are sure President Vladimir Putin will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Russians with children received cash payments on Wednesday (July 1) on the final day of a vote on constitutional changes that could allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.

State exit polls have suggested the changes will be backed by over two-thirds of voters, who have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other amendments designed to appeal to the populace.

One amendment guarantees inflation-linked pensions; another says marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

One-off payments of 10,000 roubles (S$196) were distributed to those with children at Putin's order as people headed to polling stations on the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

"I voted for the amendments to the constitution," Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. "We need radical changes and I'm for them."

Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.

"I didn't read about the amendments if I'm honest," another voter, Lyudmila, said. "What's the point of voting if they've already decided for you. It's like that in our country - read something and vote. I voted."

Putin, a 67-year-old former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday.

The amendments would allow him to run for another two six-year, back-to-back stints if he wishes after his current term expires in 2024.

Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.

At 60 per cent, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90 per cent.

With Russia reporting thousands of new Covid-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.

The opposition Communist Party, which has advised supporters to vote "no" to the changes, has complained of irregularities at two Moscow polling stations, where it said the number of those registered to vote at home was 10 times higher than normal.

Investigators said on Tuesday they were looking into a journalist's allegations he had been assaulted by two policemen at a polling station.

Putin has said he wants a clean vote, something election officials have pledged to deliver.

Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, has said it is already clear it will not be able to confirm the outcome of the vote as legitimate.

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