MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin made a last-ditch appeal to Russians on Tuesday to vote for constitutional changes that would allow him to run again for president twice, potentially extending his rule until 2036.
Putin spoke at the scene of a series of bloody World War Two battles on the eve of the main and last day of a seven-day nationwide vote that would change the constitution for the first time since 1993, a move critics have likened to a legal coup.
“We are not just voting for amendments. We are voting for the country in which we want to live ...for a country for whose sake we are working and want to pass onto our children,” said Putin in front of a monument of a Red Army soldier he had just unveiled on a hill in the town of Rzhev in western Russia.
Putin made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career. That is consistent with the official get-out-the-vote campaign which has stressed other amendments instead.
State exit polls suggest the changes will be backed by over two thirds of voters, allowing the 67-year-old former KGB officer - if he wishes - to run for another two six-year, back-to-back stints after his current term expires in 2024.
He has already led Russia for more than two decades.
At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.
Putin has said he has yet to take a final decision on his future, though critics are convinced he will run again. However, some analysts believe he has yet to decide, and wants to keep his options open so as not to become a lame duck.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in Russia’s Caucasus region, told aides that Putin should be made president for life.
“Right now who can replace him?” said Kadyrov. “There’s no such world class leader and we should be proud of that.”
With Russia still reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases every day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but they have mocked the vote online, saying it is a farce whose outcome has already been decided by the authorities.
Putin has said he wants a clean vote, something election officials have pledged to deliver.
Critics have shared photographs of makeshift polling stations set up in apartment stairwells, courtyards and in the boot of a parked car.
“We’ll fall ill and die - but we’ll deliver the votes for Putin,” joked allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, posting a video of a vote being held in a stairwell in Siberia near a flat where a coronavirus case had been registered.
The Communist Party, which has advised supporters to vote “no” to the changes, complained of irregularities at two Moscow polling stations, where it said the number of registered home voters was 10 times higher than normal.
In one video shared on social media on Tuesday, two policemen were seen wrestling to the ground a journalist observing a polling station in St Petersburg. He screamed out in pain after his arm was pinned behind his back.
Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, said it was already clear it would not be able to confirm the vote’s outcome as legitimate.
Additonal reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones