The Kremlin on Thursday hailed as a triumph the result of a nationwide vote that handed President Vladimir Putin the right to run for two more terms, but an independent monitoring group said the vote had not been free and the outcome was flawed.
Final results after the week-long vote showed that nearly 78% of voters had backed changes to the constitution allowing Putin potentially two more six-year terms after his current one ends in 2024.
That means that the 67-year-old former KGB officer, who has ruled Russia for over two decades as either president or prime minister, could be in power until he is 83.
Already the longest-serving leader in modern Russian history since Josef Stalin, Putin says he has yet to decide on his political future, though critics say they are sure he will try to stay in the Kremlin for as long as he can.
Some analysts believe he may however be keeping his options open so as not to become a lame duck before 2024.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the emphatic nature of the nationwide vote was a measure of how deeply Russians trusted Putin to run the country.
“It’s definitely considered a triumph. What took place was in effect a de facto triumphant referendum on trust in Putin,” said Peskov.
Putin’s approvals rating stood at 60% last month, still high but hovering around just above a two-decade low after slipping in April amid the coronavirus crisis and related economic pain, a poll by the Levada Center showed.
Opposition activists have called the vote illegitimate and said it was designed to legalise Putin’s presidency for life.
Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, said on Thursday it had recorded numerous irregularities during the vote, including ballot stuffing and widespread cases of employers forcing staff to cast a ballot.
“This past vote was indeed unprecedented and will go down in the history of the country as an example of an attempt to encroach on people’s sovereignty,” Golos said.
Moscow resident Ksenia was one of several people who told Reuters she did not believe official figures about the vote’s outcome.
“I think none of my friends took part in the vote, I think it is all a fake (the result). No one voted. Everyone understands that they will vote for us anyway, what’s the point in attending?”
Others were more upbeat.
“My attitude to the vote is very positive,” said Yevgeny, a Moscow resident who said he had voted in favour of changing the constitution.