Russians are participating in a seven-day vote on constitutional amendments that would enable President Vladimir Putin to stay in office until 2036 by resetting the clock on his term limits.
Russians have gone to the polls to cast early ballots in a nationwide referendum on constitutional reforms that could see President Vladimir Putin remain in power until 2036.
Election officials opened polling stations in the run-up to the official voting day on July 1 to reduce the risk of overcrowding that could spread coronavirus infections.
Masks and disinfectant gels have been made available to 110 million eligible voters across 10 time zones, and Russians in Vladivostok in the Far East cast ballots wearing masks as election officials distributed ballot papers in gloves.
The Kremlin reluctantly postponed the vote that was originally scheduled for April 22 as Covid-19 infections increased and officials imposed restrictions to slow the pandemic.
Putin –– in power as president or prime minister since 1999 introduced the reforms to the 1993 constitution in January.
They were hastily adopted by both houses of parliament and regional lawmakers and the outcome of the referendum is seen as a foregone conclusion.
Putin insisted that Russians vote on the changes even though a referendum is not legally required, arguing a plebiscite would give the amendments legitimacy.
The vote comes after columns of tanks and troops paraded through Moscow on Wednesday as Putin presided over grand World War II commemorations.
'President for life'
Opposition campaigner 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 has said.
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, the 67-year-old's current term in the Kremlin would expire in 2024.
Sergey Panov, a 45-year-old voter in Russia's second-largest city of Saint Petersburg, said he drove to his polling station before work specially to vote against the reforms.
"This is the only thing I can do to keep my conscience clear and so I know that I did everything I could, even if it doesn't affect the final result," he said.
Vote faces little protest
The country’s divided opposition, meanwhile, has failed to mobilise a significant protest amid the audacious election campaign and the weeklong voting that begins with early balloting on Thursday.
Instead, critics are raising questions about the vote's legitimacy.
“Nothing will prevent the Kremlin from getting the formal result they need,” said former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.
Some Moscow politicians and journalists launched a “No!” campaign against the amendments, but the virus lockdown prohibited rallies, and authorities have detained even single pickets.
Most of the operations took place online.
Live YouTube rallies and hashtag campaigns on social media revealed that a significant number of people don’t support the amendments, said Yulia Galyamina, one of the founders of “No!”
However, she admitted it could not compete with the Kremlin's operation.
“Society is under the influence of ubiquitous (state) propaganda. We have neither the resources, nor the opportunity, to organise propaganda of this scale,” Galyamina said.
Authorities have turned to using incentives.
In the Siberian Krasnoyarsk region, a constitutional quiz has been organised –– conveniently near polling stations –– with top prizes of a car or an apartment.
Moscow authorities have allocated $145 million (10 billion rubles) for gift certificates to shops and restaurants for voters.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin described the reforms as necessary if the country wanted to "guarantee stability."
After casting his ballot without a mask or gloves in Moscow, former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said the reforms would protect people who had lost income or their jobs due to the pandemic.
They will "ensure targeted support to people, and help families with many children," he told reporters.
Putin said last week he had not decided whether to seek another term, but added that it was important that he have the option of running again.
"We must work and not look for successors," he said.
All-time low ratings
With the revised constitution already on sale in Moscow bookstores, the outcome is largely 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 of the reforms.
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.
But 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 effectively banning gay marriage.
READ MORE: Analysis: What keeps Putin in power?
The reforms would also consolidate presidential powers by allowing Putin to nominate top officials and guarantee the minimum wage will be no less than the minimum subsistence level.
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."