Russians have begun voting in a seven-day referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for re-election twice more and potentially remain in the top job for the next 16 years.
Election officials said they were opening polls on Thursday across the country before the official July 1 vote to avoid overcrowding that could spread coronavirus infections.
Masks and disinfectant gels are being made available to 110 million voters across 10 time zones, from the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Pacific Ocean.
The Kremlin reluctantly postponed the vote scheduled for April 22 as COVID-19 infections increased and officials imposed restrictions to slow the pandemic.
Putin, who has already been in power as president or prime minister for the past 20 years, introduced the reforms to the 1993 constitution in January this year, and they were hastily adopted by both houses of parliament and regional legislators.
He has insisted that Russians vote on the changes even though a referendum is not legally required, arguing that a plebiscite would give them legitimacy.
Among other changes, the reforms would reset Putin’s presidential term-limit clock to zero, allowing him to run two more times and potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036.
Under current rules, 67-year-old Putin’s current term in the Kremlin would expire in 2024.
Putin has cultivated a reputation as a guarantor of the Russian state’s stability, in contrast with the turbulence of the post-Soviet 1990s before he came to power.
Although his approval rating has declined to a personal record low as Russia struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, Putin still maintains broad support.
About 59 percent of Russian adults approve of Putin’s work as president, according to a nationwide survey last month by the country’s largest independent pollster, Levada Centre.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has slammed the vote as a populist ploy designed to give Putin the right to be “president for life”.
“It is a violation of the Constitution, a coup,” he said this month on social media.
The opposition’s campaign against the reforms failed to gain momentum.
Rallies scheduled in the Russian capital, Moscow, in April were barred under virus restrictions against public gatherings.
The “No” website, which collected signatures of Russians opposed to the reforms, was blocked by a Moscow court, forcing it to relaunch under another domain name.
With the revised constitution already on sale in Moscow bookstores, the outcome is seen as a foregone conclusion.
Experts at state-run pollster VTsIOM this week projected that as many as 71 percent of voters would cast their ballots in favour.
Yet the vote comes as Putin is suffering historically low approval ratings over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy.
The independent polling group Levada published a survey last month that showed his ratings at an all-time low of 59 percent.
However, on top of resetting Putin’s term limits, the reforms promise to enshrine conservative values that the Kremlin hopes will resonate with voters and attract a large turnout.
They include a mention of Russians’ “faith in God” despite a long history as a secular country, and a stipulation against gay marriage, which is not allowed under current legislation.
Ballot leaflets, posters, and billboards throughout Moscow do not mention Putin or lengthening the president’s term limits.
The campaign instead features scenes from family life, like a child kissing her grandmother with the slogan “for a guaranteed retirement”.