MOSCOW (AP) — Polls opened in Russia on Thursday for a week-long vote on constitutional changes that would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.
The vote on a slew of constitutional amendments, proposed by Putin in January, was initially scheduled for April 22, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was later rescheduled for July 1, with polling stations opening a week earlier and staying open for seven days to prevent crowds on the main voting day.
The proposed amendments include a change in the Russian Constitution that would allow the 67-year-old Putin, who has ruled Russia for over two decades, to run for two more six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024.
Other proposed changes talk about improving social benefits, define marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and redistribute executive powers within the government, strengthening the presidency.
The amendments already were approved by both houses of parliament and the country’s Constitutional Court, and signed into law by Putin. He insisted they be put to voters even though it was not legally required, a move many see as an effort to put a veneer of democracy on the controversial changes.
Holding the plebiscite in the middle of a pandemic has elicited public health concerns. Russia is still reporting over 7,000 new confirmed virus cases a day and has the world's third-highest caseload with 613,000 confirmed cases in all.
The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed the safety concerns, saying that Russia was able to slow its outbreak and assuring people that the additional voting days, outdoor polling stations and other measures are in place to protect voters
Critics said they feared the new procedures would hinder independent monitoring of the plebiscite and create opportunities for manipulation and fraud.
After polls opened Thursday, opposition politician Alexei Navalny retweeted a video of what appeared to be a polling station set up inside the trunk of a car in the far eastern city of Vladivostok. His team also posted photos of makeshift polling stations in tents and on street benches.
In a tweet featuring a video of a tent with two poll workers in it and a small plastic ballot box, Navalny said sarcastically: “As you see, control is tight, rigging is impossible. Your vote may be of critical importance!”
Some media reports pointed out that in Moscow, where online voting is allowed, people who registered to vote that way were also able to vote at polling stations.
Pavel Lobkov, a journalist with the independent TV channel Dozhd, said he was able to cast a ballot both in person and online. Election authorities said they would invalidate all the votes in the ballot box where Lobkov put his ballot.
Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova rejected criticism of voting procedures.
“No one is voting on benches or trunks of cars, no one is voting in tents," she said, calling the reported incidents of double voting a provocation.
Commenting Thursday, Putin said that the most important task is ensuring “the results of the nationwide vote are absolutely veracious, legitimate. Voters shouldn't be coerced and turnout shouldn't be artificially inflated “so that afterwards, no one can cast doubt on the position that the people will express,” Putin said.