Russians on Thursday will begin casting their ballots in a seven-day vote on sweeping reforms that could clear the way for President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036 in an exercise that critics have called a constitutional coup.
The vote is taking place despite concerns in opposition circles over the safety of people voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, worries over voter fraud and criticism that Putin, 67, has already spent too long in power.
Election officials say they are opening polls ahead of the official July 1 vote to avoid overcrowding that could spread COVID-19. Masks and disinfectant gels are being made available to 110 million voters across 10 time zones, from the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Pacific Ocean.
The vote was initially scheduled for April 22, but the Kremlin postponed the poll as infections increased.
On Wednesday, Russia’s coronavirus cases surged past 600,000, the third-highest number in the world. The country continues to report thousands of new infections every day, although authorities say the outbreak is on the wane.
If, as expected, the constitutional changes are approved, Putin would be able to run for two more back-to-back six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024.