Russians are voting on whether to extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency until 2036

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Russians have taken part in a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms that could extend the rule of President Vladimir Putin until 2036.

It comes as the country is gripped by one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world, which has meant more precautions have been taken during the week-long vote.

But the ballot also comes amid fears of mass voter fraud and criticism that Mr Putin, who was first elected president in 2000, has been in power for too long.

What is the vote about?

Russians will be voting on more than 200 proposed amendments on constitutional reform with a simple yes or no vote.

An old man wearing a mask and a hat puts a piece of paper in a clear box held by another older woman
The voting on the constitutional reforms took place over a week.(AP: Dmitri Lovetsky)

Some of the proposed changes talk about improving social benefits, define marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and redistribute executive powers within the Government, strengthening the presidency.

There are also amendments to emphasise the priority of Russian law over international norms.

That includes a provision reflecting the Kremlin’s irritation with the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies that have often issued verdicts against Russia.

One of those amendments could mean Putin could serve another 16 years

An elderly man with a slight smile sits at a desk in a dark suit with a colourful flag behind him.
Mr Putin has already been in power for more than 20 years.(AP: Alexei Nikolsky)

Currently, Mr Putin’s term is due to end in 2024. It would be his last because term limits mean he wouldn’t be eligible to run again.

But the proposed changes would effectively reset Mr Putin’s presidential term tally to zero, allowing him to serve two more back-to-back, six-year terms until 2036, if re-elected.

Mr Putin has already been in power for more than 20 years, longer than any other of the country’s rulers since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

He has served terms as either president and prime minister in different periods since 1999.

It has prompted critics to dismiss this vote as a constitutional coup, which some fear will be rigged.

Others have argued that some Russians might not even know about the leadership change.

Months of television, online and poster advertisements have listed proposed changes to pension rights, animal rights and others.

But many of the advertisements failed to highlight the amendments would allow Mr Putin to run again for president.

Looking through a toy shop window with bright Russian words written over it, you see a man unfurl bubble wrap.
Opponents saw Mr Putin’s move to put the changes to a vote as an effort to put a veneer of democracy on the controversial changes.(AP: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr)

Lev Gudkov, director of Russia’s leading independent polling agency the Levada Center, said the sheer number of amendments is designed to confuse people as to what they are actually voting for.

“The aim of this huge number of amendments is to mask the main point: a reset of Putin’s terms, hidden by concerns about traditional values, (the) status of the Russian language — 206 amendments — it’s such a vast number,” he told the ABC.

So what’s the point of the vote if the amendments have already passed Parliament?

The changes were already approved by both houses of the Parliament and the country’s Constitutional Court, and signed into law by Mr Putin.

But the President insisted they be put to voters even though it was not legally required.

Two soldiers wearing facemasks walk past people in St Petersburg.
Russia took more precautions to protect people from the coronavirus ahead of the week-long vote on amendments.(AP: Dmitri Lovetsky)

The updated constitution with the changes is already available for purchase in shops in Russia.

Opponents saw the move to put the changes to a vote as an effort to put a veneer of democracy on the controversial changes.

Mr Putin’s approval rating, though still high, has slipped to its lowest level in more than two decades.

Will the vote pass?

The Government is doing all it can to ensure it does, with those who cast a ballot made eligible for prizes and giveaways.

The “Million Prizes” program reportedly worth around 10 million roubles ($207,000) includes vouchers to restaurants and top-up of metro cards.

While voting is not compulsory, a high turnout will help validate Mr Putin’s position.

The Kremlin hopes spreading the vote out over the course of the week and allowing voting online for the first time will encourage greater participation.

State opinion pollster VTsIOM says early indications suggest 76 per cent of voters have voted in favour of the amendments.

The Government is encouraging voting everywhere: from public buses, to football fields and even out of the back of a stranger’s car:

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Can Putin be stopped?

Despite suppressing opposition, including a ban on protests, activists are still finding ways to stand up to what they call a “sham” vote.

“For some reason it is OK to hold the victory parade and a week-long voting during the pandemic, but it is not OK for citizens to express their opinion,” Sofia Uliasheva, who is a spokeswoman for local opposition group YMD Vesna, told the ABC from her home in St Petersburg.

“We think this is absurd.”

A miniature doll with blond hair and wearing a blue dress holds a piece of paper.
“Mini Protests” have popped up on social media using children’s toys to demonstrate against the vote.(Supplied: Sonya Ulyasheva)

Instead, “mini protests”, involving children’s toys, have popped up on social media.

“We took little ponies, Barbies and dolls, made little signs and flags and took pictures of that on Marsovo field,” Ms Uliasheva said.

“Marsovo field is a place which used to be a place for holding demonstrations until our authorities forbade it.”

The protest caught the attention of authorities — police investigators went to Sofia’s home to ask questions.

“If you don’t agree with official government line there is a big chance you are going to have problems with police.”

And what happens next?

With observers believing the vote is “rigged” the Government will likely “count” the votes before declaring victory.

Then it’s over to Mr Putin to decide if he wants to stay on when his term expires in 2024.

“I do not rule out the possibility of running for office, if this [option] comes up in the constitution,” Mr Putin said in a recent interview with state TV.

“We’ll see.”

ABC/wires

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