Russian president Vladimir Putin could remain in office until 2036 after the Kremlin announced Wednesday that voters had approved changes to the Russian constitution, the Associated Press reported.
This Russian vote wasn’t quite as rigged as Putin’s 2018 reelection, but still featured its share of physical ballot box stuffing, suspect protections against voter fraud and suspiciously high turnout, according to independent observers.
Putin, 67, didn’t even need the referendum to implement the 206 constitutional changes, as Russia’s legislature approved them back in mid-March. But the horse-riding strongman wanted to show that he had the people behind him as well.
Then he had a problem: he scheduled the referendum for April 22, then botched the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and postponed it until July 1.
Polls were open all week to allow for staggered voting during the pandemic, the AP reported. Each day during the election, at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases were identified in Russia.
The vote went on nonetheless, with some ballot boxes placed in car trunks, on tree stumps and in playgrounds among other less-than-secure locations, according to the AP. Putin’s popularity has declined to its lowest level in 20 years (59%) because of his bungled pandemic response, independent pollsters found, but he still cruised to victory.
Kremlin officials announced relatively early Wednesday that 73% of voters had approved the changes, CNN reported. The numbers were mostly based on Siberian results and came while polls in Moscow and St. Petersburg were still open, but the official percentage barely budged after more votes were counted.
Demonstrators, protesting Putin’s continued rule and questioning the legitimacy of the election, laid down in Moscow’s Red Square and spelled out the numbers “2036,” according to CNN. The protesters were briefly detained and not charged with crimes, according to independent Russian media.
The referendum resets Putin’s presidential term limit, allowing him to pursue reelection when his current term ends in 2024. Previously, Russian presidents were permitted to serve two six-year terms before stepping aside.
Putin already dodged this restriction once by becoming Prime Minister from 2008-2012 while his crony Dmitry Medvedev served as President. Putin has been running the country in some form since 1999.
The Kremlin did not push this message while encouraging (or forcing) people to vote, according to the AP. Instead, officials focused on popular policies like banning same-sex marriage and ignoring international law. The new term limit rules were barely mentioned.
Putin has not committed to running for president again in 2024 (or 2030). He would be 84 years old in 2036.