A majority of Russians have voted to approve amendments to the country’s constitution which would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, despite protests in Moscow and St Petersburg.
The Kremlin said Russians had shown how much they trusted Mr Putin after nearly 78% of voters backed amending about 60% of the constitution.
The results mean that Mr Putin, who has effectively been in power for more than two decades, has won the right to run for two more terms. This means he could be president for another 16 years – until he is 83-years-old.
Yet the referendum was tarnished with reports of widespread pressure on voters by employers, ballot stuffing and rallies to protest against the changes.
Independent monitoring group Golos said the vote was deeply flawed, while exiled former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Sky News it was “total fraud”.
Polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout – a first for Russia – which critics say was used as a tool to manipulate the outcome of the vote. Russian authorities said the week-long vote was to reduce crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.
Russians were also encouraged to vote with prize draws offering cars and flats, while an ad campaign highlighted other constitutional amendments to be made in the same bundle, including pensions protection and a ban on same-sex marriages.
Mr Putin’s spokesman declared it a victory, saying: “It’s definitely considered a triumph. What took place was in effect a de facto triumphant referendum on trust in Putin.”
Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said he voted for the amendments, explaining: “We need radical changes and I’m for them.”
But others were less enthusiastic. Another voter, Lyudmila, said: “I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest.
“What’s the point of voting if they’ve already decided for you. It’s like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted.”
On Russia’s easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, full preliminary results showed 80% of voters supported the amendments, while over 70% of voters backed the changes in other parts of the far east.
Only one of Russia’s 85 regions, the remote Nenets, voted against the changes as locals remain angry over a plan to merge it with another region.
But some Kremlin critics and independent election observers are sceptical about the official figures.
Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the independent election monitoring group Golos, said: “We look at neighbouring regions, and anomalies are obvious – there are regions where the turnout is artificially [boosted], there are regions where it is more or less real.”
Mr Putin himself voted at a Moscow polling station, as several hundred people gathered in the city’s central square to demonstrate against the amendments – defying a ban on public gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Police did not intervene and instead handed out masks to the participants.
In St Petersburg, people displayed copies of the old version of the constitution before they were forced off the Palace Square by police and National Guard troops.
Mr Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in January.
He initially offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of government, but it later became clear the amendments could be used to allow Mr Putin to run two more times.
The Russian president has been in power longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and has said he will decide later whether to run again in 2024.
He has argued that resetting the term count is necessary to keep officials focused on their work instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors”.