INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Russians were casting early ballots Thursday in a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms that could see President Vladimir Putin remain in power until 2036.
Election officials opened polling stations in the lead-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.
'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.
Rallies scheduled in Moscow against the move in April were barred under virus restrictions against public gatherings.
The website of the "NO" campaign that collected signatures of Russians opposed to the reforms was blocked by a Moscow court in March, forcing it to relaunch.
Sergey Panov, a 45-year-old voter in Russia's second 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 told AFP.
Senior political officials meanwhile have stressed the importance of giving Putin a chance to remain in power.
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.
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".