VLADIMIR Putin is poised to win a poll which could make him Russian leader for 36 years as stats appear to show he now has the backing of three out of four voters.
Tough guy Putin – a former KGB operative who first rose to power in 2000 – is already the longest-serving leader since ruthless Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
And now, if state-run exit polls on election reform are to be believed, he could one day overtake the man whose regime of terror caused the death and suffering of tens of millions.
The 67 year old has been either president or prime minister of his country for the past 20 years and appears to be looking to extend his reign to 2036.
He has controversially proposed a revised constitution to give him the right to run for two more six-year terms after his current mandate runs out in 2024.
The amendments would pave the way for him to rule for longer by allowing a sitting or a former president to run for office no matter how many terms they have previously held.
And Russians are now voting on whether or not the constitution should be changed to allow him to stay in charge.
Between 2008 and 2012 Putin was forced to step down to the role of PM, because Russia’s current rules meant be couldn’t remain as president continuously.
Now polls indicate he is on course to secure a resounding endorsement of his bid to extend his two-decade-long rule.
Voting began last week and an exit poll by state-run Vtsiom released Monday put support for the amendments at 76 per cent.
Turnout has already reached nearly 50 per cent, according to the Central Election Commission.
“We are voting for the country that we’re working for and that we want to hand down to our children and grandchildren,” Putin told Russians in a televised address on Tuesday.
For the first time in history, the polls were kept open for a week to help reduce crowds on election day and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Kremlin critics described the move as just an another way to manipulate the vote.
They fear Putinis seeking to become ‘tsar for life’ and will lead Russia towards greater authoritarianism.
Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive state propaganda campaign and the changes and the oppositions failure to mount a coordinated challenge.
However, Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, has called the overall vote numbers suspicious.
"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," he told The Associated Press.
The ballot comes after Putin surprisingly first proposed the constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation address in January.
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 parliamentary speaker or as chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.
The Russian leader's true intentions only became clear hours before a decisive vote in parliament when legislator Valentina Tereshkova suddenly proposed a measure to let him run two more times.
The amendments, which also emphasise 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 legislature.
Putin later 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 looking for possible successors instead of doing their jobs.
Among those turning out to the polls was a bear cub in Siberia who "decided against" backing Putin’s plan to become leader for life.
Three month old Glasha looked unimpressed at an outdoor polling station set up for Russia’s constitutional plebiscite.
The cub almost tipped over some anti-coronavirus sanitiser before grabbing a pile of voting papers and chucking them on the ground.
The handler admitted the bear had been invited to the polling station, at a secondary school, in a stunt to encourage voters to come to the poll.
"We received a call last night and were asked to come," said zoo keeper Alexander Chenotaryev.
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