Russia gave families financial windfalls on Wednesday on the final day of a vote on constitutional changes that could allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, a prospect that prompted a small protest by Kremlin critics on Red Square.
State exit polls have suggested more than two thirds of voters will back the changes. They have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other amendments with popular appeal.
One amendment guarantees inflation-linked pensions; another proposes 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 the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
“I voted for the amendments to the constitution,” Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. “We need radical changes and I’m for them.”
Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.
“I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest,” another voter, Lyudmila, 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 had reached nearly 60% by midday, election officials said. The required turnout is 50% and the amendments will pass if they are backed by a simple majority of voters.
Putin, a 67-year-old former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday.
First results are expected at 1900 GMT.
TWO MORE TERMS?
The amendments would allow him to run for another two six-year, back-to-back stints if he wishes after his current term expires in 2024.
Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.
At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.
With Russia reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.
A small group of activists staged a symbolic protest on Red Square on Wednesday using their prostrate bodies to form the date – 2036 – before being swiftly detained by police, TV Rain reported.
The “No! Campaign,” called on supporters to vote against the changes and then discuss the result on Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square while respecting social distancing rules.
“We need to remind the authorities that we exist and that there are tens of millions of us who do not want Putin to rule until 2036,” Andrei Pivovarov, an activist, said in an online video.
Mass gatherings are banned in Moscow due to the virus and Pivovarov’s suggestion of a public discussion was carefully worded. He avoided calling on people to gather, saying only that he wanted to discuss the vote’s outcome “with other free people” and would be in the square on Wednesday evening.
The opposition Communist Party, which has advised supporters to vote “no”, has complained of irregularities.
Gennady Zyuganov, its leader, said that Putin and voters needed to weigh the consequences of sticking to the Russian leader’s policies, which he said had failed the economy.
“Putin needs to choose,” said Zyuganov. “For him the moment of truth is coming. Today’s vote is very significant, the people should express their will,” said Zyuganov.
Putin has said he wants a clean vote, something election officials have pledged to deliver.
Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, has said it will not be able to confirm the outcome of the vote as legitimate.