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Russia vote backs Putin's hold on power

by VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV AND DARIA LITVINOVA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | July 2, 2020 at 3:46 a.m.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW -- Russian voters approved changes to the constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to hold power until 2036, but the weeklong plebiscite that concluded Wednesday was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.

With the nation's polls closed and 30% of all precincts counted, 74% voted for the constitutional amendments, according to election officials.

For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout without increasing crowds casting ballots in the coronavirus pandemic -- a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome.

A propaganda campaign and the opposition's failure to mount a coordinated challenge helped Putin get the result he wanted, but the plebiscite could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIvSW8obSQM]

By the time polls closed in Moscow and most other parts of western Russia, the overall turnout was at 65%, according to election officials. In some regions, about 90% of eligible voters cast ballots.

On Russia's easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, nine hours ahead of Moscow, officials quickly announced full preliminary results showing 80% of voters supported the amendments, and in other parts of the Far East, they said over 70% of voters backed the changes.

Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned the turnout figures.

"We look at neighboring regions, and anomalies are obvious -- there are regions where the turnout is artificially [boosted], there are regions where it is more or less real," Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the independent election monitoring group Golos, told The Associated Press.

Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in January. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of government, stoking speculation he might seek to become parliamentary speaker or chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.

His intentions became clear only hours before a vote in parliament, when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, proposed letting him run two more times.

Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin's push to hold the vote despite the fact that Russia has thousands of new coronavirus infections each day reflected his 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."

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/72russia/]

Even though the parliament's approval was enough to make it law, Putin put his constitutional plan to voters. But then the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing him to postpone the April 22 plebiscite.

Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin had faced a difficult dilemma: Holding the vote sooner would have brought accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it raised the risks of defeat. "Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky," she said.

Information for this article was contributed by Irina Titova of The Associated Press.

Member of an election commission, wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus prepare to count ballots after voting at a polling station in eastern Siberian city of Chita, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo)
Member of an election commission, wearing face masks and gloves to protect against coronavirus prepare to count ballots after voting at a polling station in eastern Siberian city of Chita, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo)
A man wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus casts his ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A man wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus casts his ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A member of election commission, right, checks the temperature of a voter, both wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP)
A member of election commission, right, checks the temperature of a voter, both wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP)
A woman wears a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection with a sign "No to Putin" during a protest against constitutional amendments at the Palace Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A woman wears a face mask to protect against coronavirus infection with a sign "No to Putin" during a protest against constitutional amendments at the Palace Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
A woman, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus casts her ballot, observes social distancing guidelines, at a polling station in Grozny, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)
A woman, wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus casts her ballot, observes social distancing guidelines, at a polling station in Grozny, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Russia's vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)
A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
A woman wearing a face mask to protect against coronavirus prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
People protest against constitutional amendments on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky).
People protest against constitutional amendments on Palace Square in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky).
A woman, wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus and observing social distancing guidelines, casts her ballot at a polling station with a portrait of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin on the wall in Volgograd, former Stalingrad, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Rogulin)
A woman, wearing a face mask and gloves to protect against coronavirus and observing social distancing guidelines, casts her ballot at a polling station with a portrait of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin on the wall in Volgograd, former Stalingrad, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Rogulin)
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