Putin a step away from goal as constitutional vote nears end

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MOSCOW, June 30 (AP): Russian President Vladimir Putin is just a step away from completing his main political project of the year — constitutional changes that would allow him to extend his rule until 2036.

A nationwide plebiscite on the amendments that would reset the clock on Putin’s tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday after a week of early balloting. For the first time in Russia, polls were open for a week to help reduce crowds and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive campaign to get Russia’s voters to say “yes” to the changes. However, the plebiscite intended to consolidate his hold on power could end up undermining his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s unrelenting push for holding the vote despite coronavirus infection levels remaining high reflects the Russian leader’s potential vulnerabilities.

“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”

The balloting completes a convoluted saga of concealment, deception and surprise that began in January when Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation address. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of the Russian government, stoking speculation he might continue calling the shots as parliament speaker or as chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.

The amendments, which also emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms, outlaw same-sex marriages and mention “a belief in God” as a core value, quickly sailed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament.

As speculation swirled about Putin’s future, the 67-year-old leader remained poker-faced until March 10. That’s when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, suddenly proposed a measure to let Putin run two more times. In a carefully choreographed show, Putin then arrived in parliament just before the final vote to endorse Tereshkova’s proposal.

The maneuver stunned Russian political elites who were busy guessing about Putin’s future and possible successors. Many saw the resetting of term limits as an attempt by Putin to avoid becoming a lame duck and to quell a power struggle in his inner circle.

The Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again in 2024. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants from “darting their eyes in search for possible successors instead of normal, rhythmical work.”

While Putin used his KGB-honed skills of deception to delude both the public and his own entourage, he complicated his constitutional plan by putting it to voters even though parliamentary approval was sufficient to make it law.

The move was intended to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the constitutional changes. But it backfired weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the plebiscite originally scheduled for April 22.

The delay stymied Putin’s campaign blitz and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during Russia’s outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59% during Russia’s outbreak, the lowest level since his ascent to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.

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