Voting was underway on Wednesday for Russia’s constitutional referendum that could pave the way for President Vladimir Putin to remain in office beyond 2024.
The vote was postponed from April 22 due to the coronavirus pandemic, reports the Efe.
A total of 109 million Russians are eligible to vote at over 96,000 polling stations Pwhich opened at 8 a.m.
Voting will end at 8 p.m., after which the counting of ballots cast during the past week until Wednesday will begin.
More than 45 per cent of the registered voters – some 49 million citizens – cast early votes in the nationwide ballot, according to the authorities, which extended the voting period by a week to prevent crowds at the polling stations and a possible outbreak of COVID-19.
The referendum, which opened for early voting on June 25, is being held under strict precautionary measures due to the pandemic.
Both voters and polling station officials must wear masks, maintain physical distancing and comply with other health measures, the Central Electoral Commission said.
Although Russians are voting on a total of 206 changes to the country’s basic law, experts say that the most important one is the amendment that will allow Putin to run for two more six-year terms after his current one ends in 2024, which is not possible under the current constitution. It would apply to him and not future leaders.
Opposition figures have described the move as a power grab and have called a boycott.
Putin was first elected as president in 2000, after which he went on to serve two terms.
Unable to run for President a third time, he served as Prime Minister under Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 until 2012, when he returned to the Kremlin.
The Putin-backed amendments have already been passed by lawmakers and are being submitted to a so-called All-Russian vote.
The package of amendments, which must be passed or rejected in full, also proposes the inclusion of God in the constitution and the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
It would also ban the cessation of Russian territory and tighten the requirements for those seeking to run for President.
A poll published by the public opinion research centre on Monday said 76 per cent of the electorate would vote in favour of the raft of constitutional changes.
Some 23.6 per cent of poll respondents said they would vote against.