Russians have opened the door to Vladimir Putin staying in power for 12 more years by backing constitutional changes that will allow him to run again for president twice, in a vote critics say was falsified on an industrial scale.
Official results, after 98 per cent of ballots had been counted, showed that the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades had easily won the right to run for two more six-year terms after the current one ends in 2024.
That means Mr Putin, 67, could rule until the age of 83.
The Central Election Commission said 78 per cent of votes counted across the world’s largest country had supported changing the constitution. Just over 21 per cent had voted against, it said.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the commission, said the vote had been transparent and that officials had done everything to ensure its integrity.
But opposition politician Alexei Navalny called the vote an illegitimate and illegal show designed to legalise Mr Putin’s presidency for life.
“We’ll never recognise this result,” Mr Navalny told supporters in a video.
Mr Navalny said the opposition would not protest for now because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but would do so in big numbers in the autumn if its candidates were blocked from taking part in regional elections or their results were falsified.
“What Putin fears most is the street,” said Mr Navalny.
“He… will not leave until we start to take to the streets in the hundreds of thousands and in the millions.”
Russians had been encouraged to back Putin’s power move, described by critics as a constitutional coup, with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.
One-off payments of 10,000 roubles were transferred to those with children at Mr Putin’s order as people headed to polling stations on Wednesday, the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the virus.
Turnout was 65 per cent, election officials said.
Mr Putin, who has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister since 1999, is already the longest-serving leader in modern Russian history since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
He made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday (local time).
Mr Putin said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics, who liken Mr Putin to a latter-day Tsar, say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.
At 60 per cent, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90 per cent.
With Russia reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, supermarket trolleys and the boot of a car.
Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, cited numerous irregularities with the vote and said it would not be able to confirm the outcome as legitimate.