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78% of Voters Back Extending Putin Rule07/02 06:15


   MOSCOW (AP) -- Almost 78% of voters in Russia have approved amendments to 
the country's constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in 
power until 2036, Russian election officials said Thursday after all the votes 
were counted. Kremlin critics said the vote was rigged.

   In the week-long balloting that concluded on Wednesday, 77.9% voted for the 
changes, and 21.3% voted against, with 100% of the precincts counted by 
Thursday morning, Russia's Central Election Commission said. The turnout 
exceeded 64%, according to officials.

   The reported numbers reflect the highest level of voter support for Putin in 
ten years. In the 2018 presidential election, 76.7% of voters supported his 
candidacy, while in the 2012 election only 63.6% did.

   But Kremlin critics say the numbers alone show they are false, with an 
unrealistic approval rating for the Russian leader amid wide frustration in the 
country over declining living standards.

   "A record in falsifying votes has been set in Russia," opposition politician 
Alexei Navalny said in a Facebook post on Thursday. "The announced result has 
nothing whatsoever to do with the people's opinion."

   Putin's approval rating was at 59% in May, according to the Levada Center, 
Russia's top independent pollster. That was the lowest in two decades.

   The week-long plebiscite was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on 
voters and other irregularities, with independent election observers 
criticizing the voting procedure as having a complete lack of transparency and 
independent control.

   For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for an entire week to 
bolster turnout and avoid election-day crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic --- 
a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the 
outcome, as ballot boxes remained unattended for days at night.

   Observers also pointed to the relentless pressure that state and private 
employers put on their staff to vote, monitoring that was hindered by 
bureaucratic hurdles and virus-related restrictions, and the dubious legal 
standing of the early voting.

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