Russian constitutional reform vote nears end

Russian President Vladimir Putin's main political project of the year - a constitutional vote that would allow him to extend his rule until 2036 - drew closer to completion as Russia held a nationwide ballot on Wednesday.

The vote on the amendments that would reset the clock on Putin’s tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms has been going on for a week but Wednesday was its final day. There are around 200 amendments proposed to the constitution even though Putin has traditionally been opposed to changes, experts say. The other changes to the constitution include measures to respect the country's heritage and the orthodox church as well as strengthen the Kremlin over local and municipal authorities. One change also defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the constitution, thus formally outlawing same-sex marriage. Some social changes would guarantee that the minimum wage does not fall under the cost of living and ensure that pensions rise over time.

For the first time in Russia, the polls were open days ahead of time to help reduce crowds on election day and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic.If over 50% of the Russian public approve of the changes, the bill will enter into force.

Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive campaign to get Russia’s voters to say “yes” to the changes. The vote was initially set to take place on 22 April, however, Putin chose to postpone it due to the situation with the spread of the novel coronavirus in Russia. During a working session earlier, Putin approved 1 July, 2020, as the new date for the vote. However, Russians could vote between 25 and 30 June, and in two regions of the Russian Federation - Moscow and the Nizhny Novgorod Region - this could be done using remote electronic voting.

On 30 June, President Vladimir Putin called on Russians to vote on the amendments to the Constitution, noting the importance on every vote.

"I implore you, dear friends, to have your say. Every vote is the most important, the most powerful," Putin said in his video address to the nation on Tuesday.

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. Early exit polling by the state-run public opinion research centre showed that 76% of Russian voters surveyed between June 25-28 voted in favour of the changes. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during Russia’s outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59% during Russia’s outbreak, the lowest level since his ascent to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.

Amid the uncertainty, Putin rescheduled the vote immediately upon seeing the first signs of a slowdown in Russia’s infection rate even though the number of new confirmed cases reported daily remains high.

Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin faced a difficult dilemma. Holding the vote sooner would bring accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it further raised the risk of defeat, she said.

“A late vote could have been lost. Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,” Schulmann said.

She noted that the vote comes shortly after the government’s lifting of coronavirus restrictions helped brighten the public mood.

Polls suggest 44% of Russians support the constitutional reform.

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