MOSCOW (AP) — Lawmakers in Russia's Kremlin-controlled parliament on Friday gave tentative approval to a bill that would move up next year's parliamentary election by three months, a tactic seen by critics as an attempt to weaken the opposition.
The lower house voted 339-101 with one abstention Friday to approve the bill in the first of three readings. It would also need to be approved by the equally-docile upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin.
The bill envisages moving the 2016 parliamentary election from December to September. It would likely result in a lower public interest in the campaign, as many Russians go on vacation in the summer, paying less attention to politics.
Some observers saw the parliament move as a trial balloon for possible early presidential vote, a move that would allow Putin to win another term before his popularity sinks amid Russia's economic woes.
Russia's economy, hit by Western sanctions and its own dependence on oil prices, has entered a recession, dropping 2.2 percent in the first quarter of the year. Prominent economists have warned that unless Russia makes drastic reforms, it is doomed for stagnation
On Thursday, ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Putin, whose term ends in 2018, also could order an early presidential vote to win a mandate for much-needed economic reforms.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged off the suggestion.
"Putin is carrying out structural reforms already, in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way," Peskov said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If he wants to carry out reforms faster in the way Kudrin is suggesting, he does not need to call early elections to ask for a mandate. With a popularity rating of 90 percent, he already has a mandate."