World News

Citing virus, some Russian election officials shun vote to extend Putin rule

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hundreds of Russian polling station officials, citing the risk of spreading the coronavirus, say they won’t help organise a nationwide vote on reforms that could extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule until 2036.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

In the July 1 ballot, Russians will vote to approve or reject constitutional reforms including a change that would allow Putin to serve two more six-year terms, if re-elected, instead of stepping down in 2024.

But around 350 election officials across the country say taking part is too dangerous at a time when authorities are still reporting thousands of new infections each day despite a drop in cases in the capital Moscow.

The officials have started a petition to try to encourage peers to join the boycott.

The “July 1 vote poses a danger to our lives and health and to the lives and health of voters,” the group said in a statement. “We just don’t understand why such sacrifices and risks are needed, why we need to hold such a vote now and at any price. We are not expendable.”

The boycott looks for now unlikely to severely disrupt the vote, which is administered by at least 1 million such officials. But it amplifies a complaint made by Putin’s critics that he has scheduled the vote too early, from a health and safety viewpoint, for political reasons.

“It is unclear what the urgency (of this vote) is,” a member of a Moscow local election commission Sergei Romanchyuk said.

“Why can’t we wait until September or even next year?”

The Kremlin has denied politics are at play and said all necessary safety precautions will be taken.

Critics say Putin is rushing to take advantage of a feel-good patriotic vibe often generated by the annual Red Square military parade - on June 24 this year - as well as good summer weather and the easing of lockdown restrictions.

No opposition events are expected to be allowed before the vote, with critics saying coronavirus-induced bans on public events are an easy way for the Kremlin to avoid protests.

The vote is being held over seven days to reduce health risks, electronic voting is allowed in two regions including Moscow with its 7.3 million voters, and polling stations may be outdoors.

Additional reporting by Anton Derbenev; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich