Duma Approves Bill to Extend President's Term

The lower house of parliament gave its final approval Friday to a bill extending the presidential term from four to six years, a move widely seen as paving the way for Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency.

The State Duma, dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, voted 392 to 57 Friday to approve the bill at its third and final reading. The bill, proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev, now goes to the equally controlled upper house where swift approval is expected.

The only opposition to the constitutional changes came from the Communists, whose proposal to limit presidents to just one term was ignored.

Parliament leaders said earlier this week that the law does not allow individual lawmakers to propose changes to the Constitution.

"All democratic principles were violated during the debate," Communist Nikolai Ryabov said during Friday's session.

"The bill was passed at such a speed as if people would start living better after its passage."

Flamboyant pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose proposal to extend the presidential term to seven years instead of six was also ignored, still endorsed the bill Friday.

"Russia has been and will remain a monarchy," Zhirinovsky said.

The widely popular Putin, now prime minister, was barred constitutionally from seeking a third straight term as president in elections this year. His protege Medvedev resoundingly won the post in March.

If enacted, the change would not apply to Medvedev's current term, due to end in 2012.

Putin has said the change was not tailored for him and would help boost democracy.

But the push to enact the constitutional change just months after Medvedev's election has led to speculation that his presidential term could be cut short to usher Putin back into the Kremlin.

Putin's speech at the congress of the United Russia party Thursday gave no immediate signal that he was eyeing a job change soon. His message was the opposite: that Putin is eagerly and competently doing his job as prime minister to shelter the Russians from financial crisis.

But with its broad scope and attention to detail, Putin's performance appeared aimed to cast him as the best hope for a country at a difficult time.

A survey by VTsIOM pollsters published on Friday showed that 56 percent of Russians supported a longer presidency and an extended term of parliament, while 29 percent were against and 15 percent undecided.

The longer Kremlin term will not apply to Medvedev's present mandate, and Putin's spokesman has said there is no plan for an early presidential election.

(AP, Reuters)