Moscow says a majority of Russians approved amendments to Russia’s constitution in a weeklong vote that ended Wednesday, allowing President Vladimir Putin to hold power until 2036. The balloting, however, was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities. With most of the nation's polls closed and 15% of precincts counted, 71% voted for the changes, according to election officials. For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout without increasing crowds casting ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic—a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome. Putin voted at a Moscow polling station, dutifully showing his passport to the election worker. His face was uncovered, unlike most of the other voters, who were offered free masks at the entrance.
A massive propaganda campaign and the opposition’s failure to mount a coordinated challenge helped Putin get the result he wanted, but the plebiscite could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting, the AP reports. Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned official figures. "We look at neighboring regions, and anomalies are obvious—there are regions where the turnout is artificially (boosted), there are regions where it is more or less real," says Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos. Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades—longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin—has said he will decide later whether to run again when his term ends in 2024.