A majority of voters approved changes to Russia’s constitution that would allow President Vladimir Putin to hold power until 2036, but the weeklong plebiscite that ended Wednesday was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.
With most of the nation's polls closed and 20% of precincts counted, 72% voted for the constitutional amendments, according to election officials.
For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout without increasing crowds casting ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic — a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome.
A massive propaganda campaign and the opposition’s failure to mount a coordinated challenge helped Putin get the result he wanted, but the plebiscite could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.
By the time polls closed in Moscow and most other parts of Western Russia, the overall turnout was at 65%, according to election officials. In some regions, almost 90% of eligible voters cast ballots.
On Russia's easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, nine hours ahead of Moscow, officials quickly announced full preliminary results showing 80% of voters supported the amendments, and in other parts of the Far East, they said over 70% of voters backed the changes.
Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned official figures.
“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,” Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, told The Associated Press.
Putin voted at a Moscow polling station, dutifully showing his passport to the election worker. His face was uncovered, unlike most of the other voters who were offered free masks at the entrance
Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again in 2024.
He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants focused on their work instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors.”