Marathon vote on extending Vladimir Putin’s rule begins amid coronavirus epidemic

Marathon vote on extending Vladimir Putin’s rule begins amid coronavirus epidemic
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Russians on Thursday will begin casting their ballots in a seven-day vote on sweeping reforms that could clear the way for President Vladimir Putin to stay in the Kremlin until 2036 if re-elected, an exercise that critics call a constitutional coup.

The vote is taking place despite concerns in opposition circles over the safety of people voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, worries over voter fraud, and criticism that Putin, 67, has already been in power too long. Russia’s coronavirus tally surged past 600,000 cases on Wednesday, the third-highest in the world, with thousands of new infections being reported every day, although authorities say the novel virus is on the wane.

All necessary safety precautions will be taken during the vote, authorities say. If, as expected, the constitutional changes are approved, Putin would be able to run for two more back-to-back six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024. The former KGB operative has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999, and has not ruled out running again, but says he has not taken a final decision.

Critics believe he intends to cling to power like elderly Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who died in office. Others believe he is keeping his options open so as no to become a lame duck ahead of 2024 and may yet still hand over the reins to a handpicked but currently unknown successor. “Since the president did not find a successor, he appointed himself,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Moscow Center think tank.

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