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Russia deputies to vote on Putin's constitutional reform

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Moscow (AFP)

Russia's parliament is on Tuesday expected to back President Vladimir Putin's controversial constitutional amendments that the Kremlin leader hopes will secure the country's political future for decades to come.

In a key second reading parliament's lower house, the State Duma, is set to vote on a broad overhaul of the constitution. These would be the first major changes to Russia's basic law since 1993.

Putin has been in power for two decades and is due to step down in 2024 after his fourth Kremlin term ends.

He unleashed a political storm in January when he suddenly proposed changes to the constitution and dismissed his loyal ally Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister.

Soon after, the State Duma unanimously approved the constitutional reform bill in a first reading, after less than two hours of debate. A third and final reading may also take place as early as this week.

Analysts have compared the constitutional changes to a sort of smorgasbord package of proposals.

They include stipulations to strengthen the already strong role of the president, enshrine the mention of Russians' "faith in God" and to spell out that marriage is a heterosexual union.

Russians will vote on the constitutional reforms once the legislation has been approved by both houses of parliament. The plebiscite has been set for April 22.

But the opposition, including Putin's most prominent critic Alexei Navalny, have criticised the proposals. They are warning that the Kremlin strongman wants to remain leader for life.

- 'Not about me' -

Putin, 67, however has said he would not bend the law to stay in power by any means, suggesting instead he wanted to cement his political legacy.

"This isn't about me," Putin said at a meeting with members of the public in the central city of Ivanovo on Friday.

"We are proposing amendments not for 5 or 10 years but at least for 30 to 50 years. This is not about now."

The constitutional proposals seek to limit the president's time in office to a total of two terms and strengthen the role of the State Council, currently an advisory body.

Some Kremlin critics have suggested Putin may head the State Council after 2024, but the Russian president ruled out that scenario.

"I don't want to and I will not create a system of state power in Russia which will be unacceptable or destructive for it, in order to extend my term," Putin said in comments broadcast on national television at the weekend.

In January, Putin said he wanted to have a succession plan in place. He did not want Russia to return to the Soviet-era practice of rulers dying in office without a transition plan, he said.

He did not explain, however, why he began working on a succession plan two years into his fourth Kremlin term -- or why he was rushing the changes through parliament.

The new amendments also ban giving away Russian territory and seek to protect historic truth about the country's role in World War II.

Many ordinary Russians have been flummoxed by the draft legislation.

According to a study by Levada Centre, an independent pollster, 64 percent of Russians did not have a clear idea of what the proposals mean.

A quarter of Russians said they would back the amendments, while 23 percent said they would not vote.

- 'Conservative manifesto' -

An editorial in Vedomosti business daily called the proposed amendments a "conservative manifesto" -- the political legacy that Putin wanted to leave to future generations.

Political commentator Maxim Trudolyubov said the overhaul of the constitution was nothing short of a plan to immortalise Putin.

Writing in the Russian edition of Forbes, Trudolyubov called the new legislation an attempt to "'codify Putin', that is to create an undying political body that will be able to live longer than an average mortal president".

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