Russians have begun casting ballots in a vote on constitutional reforms that could pave the way for an extension of President Vladimir Putin’s rule by 12 years.
Voting stations opened on June 25 in all 14 administrative regions of Russia’s Far Eastern federal district, regional election commissions and administrative bodies said as the seven-day voting period on the measure kicked off.
The opening of polling stations for a week is aimed at helping avoid crowds on July 1, the day designated for the nationwide vote, as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote has raised concerns among health officials as the number of new confirmed infections remains stubbornly high at above 7,000 a day.
Explainer: What's In Russia's Constitutional Reforms Package?
The vote already had to be postponed from its originally scheduled date of April 22 due to the pandemic. Early voting has been allowed since June 10 for people who don't have access to polling stations.
Putin announced early this month that the vote would be held July 1 on constitutional amendments that among other things would allow him to run in the next two presidential elections.
The plan has sparked sharp criticism from opposition members and human rights groups who call it nothing more than an attempt at a power grab by Putin.
One of the changes that will result from the reforms if they are approved is that Putin's presidential term-limit clock will be reset to zero, opening the way for him to run when his current term expires in 2024, and again in 2030.
Under current rules, after his current term expires, Putin is forbidden from seeking a third consecutive term.
"It is a violation of the constitution, a coup," opposition campaigner Aleksei Navalny has said of the changes.
Several journalists and activists also pointed out that within hours of the start of voting on June 25, it was possible to cast two ballots, once at polling stations and then again online.
In one instance, Pavel Lobkov, a journalist and presenter on TV Rain (Dozhd), said he voted at a Moscow polling station in the morning, then an hour later he was able to cast another ballot online since he had originally registered to participate that way.
“Case closed…The system counted two votes. Everything is filmed on video. It is clear that in this way from each state employee there will be 30 votes in favor,” Navalny tweeted after Lobkov’s video appeared online.
The Kremlin has dismissed the concerns, saying that Russia has been able to slow down the spread of the coronavirus and it has assured people that all the necessary measures will be taken to ensure the safety of the voters.
Putin proposed the sweeping constitutional reform earlier this year and insisted on putting it to a nationwide vote even though it was not required by law.
Final approval of the changes will come if more than half of the country’s voters support them in the nationwide vote. The constitutional changes are expected to be approved, meaning Putin would be able to run for two more back-to-back six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024.
Putin hosted a Victory Day military parade in Moscow on June 24 commemorating the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The parade is traditionally held on May 9, but it too had to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia has reported more than 600,000 coronavirus infections, giving it the third-highest number in the world, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Deaths stand at more than 8,500, but real numbers are believed to be much higher.
During the Victory Day parade, the Kremlin limited access in Red Square to the area where Putin sat along with foreign leaders and World War II veterans of Soviet forces.
Those veterans had been under quarantine ahead of the parade. The same was true of soldiers taking part in the parade.