The Kremlin and its supporters have won a controversial vote to amend the constitution and reset Vladimir Putin’s term limits, potentially allowing him to rule as president until 2036. Critics have challenged the result, saying that the voting was rigged to produce a blow-out win.
The ad hoc vote, which did not fulfil legal criteria to be classed as a referendum, saw 77.92% of voters endorse constitutional amendments, with 21.26% against the changes, after all the ballots were counted. Turnout was nearly 68%, the election commission said.
The results will allow the Kremlin to say that a vast majority of Russians back Putin’s continued rule beyond 2024, the year that until now marked the end of his fourth and final term as president. Ads for the vote on constitutional changes barely mentioned that it would reset term limits for Putin, whose ratings recently hit their lowest level in 20 years, according to some recent polling.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called the vote “a triumphal referendum on confidence in President Putin”.
“It was very difficult to predict the extremely high turnout and the extremely high support we have seen today,” he said.
In a single up-or-down vote, Russians also chose to support a package of amendments that include pension and minimum wage boosts, a modest reorganisation of government, a constitutional mention of “faith in God”, a ban on gay marriage, exhortations to preserve Russian language and history, and a ban on top officials holding dual citizenship.
The vote was the final step to incorporating the amendments into the constitution. They have already been reviewed by Russia’s supreme court and backed by regional lawmakers. Putin has said he may or may not run in the next election in 2024, but justified the vote by saying he wanted to stop a search for a successor that could leave him a lame duck.
Only one of Russia’s 85 regions, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug in the far north, voted against the amendments, with 55% of locals joining a protest vote fuelled by plans to merge the autonomous region with its neighbour. Chechnya, where the strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, recently said Putin should be elected “president for life”, voted nearly 98% in support.
The official returns showed stronger support, often in excess of 80%, in western Russia, where most of the population lives, and slightly weaker backing beyond the Ural mountains, through Siberia and into the country’s far east, which has a track record for protest voting.
The returns were still considerably more favourable to the Kremlin than polls before the vote, as well as independent exit polls held by opponents, and critics of the government said the results had been manipulated.
“The updated ‘results’ are a fake and a massive lie,” said Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, who had said he would sit out the vote. “They have nothing in common with the opinion of Russia’s citizens.”
Golos, an elections monitoring NGO, said in a scathing report that the “unprecedented” vote could not accurately reflect the public mood because of its ad hoc design.
Hundreds of opponents of the amendments protested against the results in Pushkin Square, in Moscow, on Wednesday evening.