Vladimir Putin Could Remain in Power Until 2036 After Disputed Vote Changes Russia Constitution
The country's only independent election monitoring group said that Russian citizens' voting rights were "grossly violated"
Under a cloud of dissent, Russia voted this week to amend its country's constitution to expand presidential term limits, making it possible for the autocratic Vladimir Putin to remain in power as the country's leader until 2036.
Putin, a veteran of Russia's KGB, was elected as the second president in 1999 and served two terms before stepping into the role of prime minister for four years between 2008 to 2012.
Critics viewed his successor at that time, Putin-ally Dmitry Medvedev, as a de facto place-holder until Putin could run for president again. Indeed, he was elected for a third presidential term in 2012 and is currently in the midst of a fourth term through 2024.
Should he remain in office until 2036, the 67-year-old Putin would be in his 80s — and have been in power, in some form, nearly half his life.
He is a divisive figure in America and much of Europe, where intelligence officials believe he is behind a sustained campaign in recent years to sow discord and division in the West. He has cast himself, in turn, as the consummate defender of his country.
This week's vote giving Putin the ability to run for two additional terms was slammed by critics, who have long described him as dictatorial.
“A record in falsifying votes has been set in Russia,” Alexei Navalny, a Russian activist and one of Putin's biggest political rivals, said in a Facebook post, according to the Associated Press. “The announced result has nothing whatsoever to do with the people’s opinion.”
Golos, the country's only independent election monitoring group, cited a number of issues with how the week-long election was conducted and said that Russian citizens' voting rights were "grossly violated."
"Revealing the free will of the people was impossible from the very beginning because of the rules that were consciously created by the initiators of the amendments and the organizers of the vote," a translation of the independent Russian organization's statement reads.
The amendment vote was the first time Russia held an election over the period of a week, the AP reports, adding that some polling places were "in some instances on street benches, tree stumps and in the trunks of cars."
Reuters reports that critics of the election there shared photographs online of "polling stations in apartment stairwells, supermarket trolleys and the boot of a car."
According to Reuters, Putin ordered one-time payments of roughly 10,000 roubles (about $141) to voters who have children, on Wednesday — the final day of the vote, which was ultimately approved.
"Russians had been encouraged to back Putin’s power move, described by critics as a constitutional coup, with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages," Reuters reported.
Putin celebrated the results in a televised statement thanking citizens for their support, according to the AP.
"We need internal stability and time for the reinforcing of the country, of all of its institutions,” he said.
Russian election officials claimed 67 percent of voters approved the amendment, which was part of a package of amendments to the country's constitution, including a ban on same-sex marriage and the declaration of “a belief in God as a core value," the AP reports.
Putin has argued that Russia still needs stability, citing the transition into a democratic state following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"We need internal stability and time to strengthen the country and all its institutions," he said Thursday. "So, thanks again to those who supported the amendments."
Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker and Putin critic, offered another view.
“Did Putin impress us with the scale of the people’s love (for him)? No, he just made a fool of himself,” Gudkov said in a Facebook post, according to the AP.
Putin has not yet committed to running for two additional terms, though experts believe it is likely.
“Putin is weaker, but still the strongest, by far the most powerful man in the country,” Masha Lipman, an independent Russian political analyst, told the AP. “He is still in charge.”