- Russians have overwhelmingly voted in favor of changes to the country's constitution.
- The changes will enable President Vladimir Putin to potentially stay in power up to 2036.
- Critics have said there were numerous voting irregularities.
Russians have overwhelmingly voted in favor of changes to the country's constitution that enable President Vladimir Putin to potentially stay in power up to 2036.
With all the votes counted, the electoral commission said Thursday morning that the final count showed 77.9% of those who voted were in favor of amendments to the constitution of Russia and 21.2% against, state news agency RIA Novosti reported. Data showed voter turnout was 65%, the commission said.
The constitutional amendments covered a raft of issues ranging from the minimum wage and pensions, to giving Putin the right to run for two more six-year terms in office. The 67-year old's current term ends in 2024.
The vote on constitutional amendments was billed as a referendum, but in reality the changes had already been passed by Russia's parliament and the public vote was seen as a move to legitimize the amendments. Putin has not yet explicitly stated that he will run for office again.
Critics of the Kremlin say the vote was neither transparent nor conducted according to usual electoral standards; ballot boxes were set in conventional polling stations but also on pavements, and in fields and parks.
Some voters — those in Moscow and the Nizhny Novgorod region — were able to vote online, and votes were cast from abroad too. A Russian cosmonaut even voted from space as he is stationed at the International Space Station. Controversially, incentives were also reportedly offered to voters, with reports of prizes being up for grabs.
Russia's electoral commission has rebuffed accusations of irregularities, however, saying on Twitter that it had received few complaints and had taken measures to prevent double voting, adding that voter lists would be checked and verified.
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who has heavily criticized the electoral procedure during the week-long vote, called it illegitimate. "We'll never recognize this result," Navalny told supporters in a video, Reuters reported. Navalny said on Twitter the opposition would focus its efforts on regional elections later this year in its efforts to defeat ruling party United Russia.
"The best reaction to what happened is not despair and anxiety, but the mobilization of thousands of observers this fall and the defeat of United Russia in the regional elections, where at least some procedure has remained," Navalny tweeted.
Putin gave a speech Tuesday, on the eve of the last day of voting, calling on Russians to vote, though he did not mention how the changes would amend rules to the presidential office that "reset the clock" on Putin's presidency.
"We are going to vote for the country where we want to live, with cutting-edge education and health care, a reliable system of social protection and an effective government accountable to the people," he said in a national address after unveiling a patriotic monument to Soviet soldiers.
"We are going to vote for a country to the benefit of which we have been working and which we would like to pass on to our children and grandchildren."
Putin has seen his popularity decline in recent months to around 60%, a far cry from the near-90% approval rating seen in mid-2015, according to the independent Levada Center.
The president has been criticized for what some have described as a hands-off approach to the pandemic: Russia has the third-highest number of cases in the world, with 653,479 reported infections, to date, and 9,521 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.