Russians have granted President Vladimir Putin the right to stay in power until 2036 by voting overwhelmingly for constitutional changes that reset the clock on the longtime Russian leader’s tenure to zero, but critics said the outcome was falsified on an industrial scale.
Official results published on Thursday, after 99.9 percent of ballots had been counted, showed that the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than 20 years as president or prime minister had won the right to run for two more six-year terms after the current one ends in 2024.
That means Putin, 67, could rule until the age of 83.
The Central Election Commission said 77.9 percent of votes counted across the world’s largest country had supported changing the constitution. About 21 percent had voted against, it said.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the commission, said the vote had been transparent and that officials had done everything to ensure its integrity.
The United States on Thursday voiced concern over the vote, pointing to reports of voter coercion.
“We are troubled by reports of Russian government efforts to manipulate the result of the recent votes on constitutional amendments, including reports of voter coercion, pressure on opponents of the amendments and restrictions of independent observers of the vote,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
The European Union also called on Russia to investigate reported vote irregularities.
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny had a different view and called the vote an illegitimate show designed to legalise Putin’s presidency for life.
“We’ll never recognise this result,” Navalny told supporters in a video.
Navalny said the opposition would not protest for now because of the coronavirus pandemic, but would do so in big numbers in the autumn if its candidates were blocked from taking part in regional elections or their results were falsified.
“What Putin fears most is the street,” said Navalny. “He … will not leave until we start to take to the streets in the hundreds of thousands and in the millions.”
Russians had been encouraged to back Putin’s power move, described by critics as a constitutional coup, with prize draws offering flats and an advertisement campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.
One-off payments of 10,000 roubles ($141) were transferred to those with children at Putin’s order as people headed to polling stations on Wednesday, the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the virus.
Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said he had voted in favour of the reforms. “We need radical changes and I’m for them,” he said.
Others were less enthusiastic.
“I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest,” Lyudmila, another voter, 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.”
Turnout was 65 percent, election officials said.
Putin, already the longest-serving leader in modern Russian history since Soviet ruler Josef Stalin, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday.
He has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics, who liken Putin to a latter-day Tsar, say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open.
At 60 percent, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90 percent.