Polls opened in Russia on Thursday for a week-long vote on constitutional changes that would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.
The vote on a slew of constitutional amendments, proposed by Putin in January, was initially scheduled for April 22, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was later rescheduled for July 1, with polling stations opening a week earlier and staying open for seven days in an effort to avoid crowds on the main voting day.
The proposed amendments include a change in the constitution that would allow the 67-year-old Putin, who has ruled Russia for over two decades, to run for two more six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024.
Other amendments talk about improving social benefits, define marriage as a union of a man and a woman and redistribute executive powers within the government, strengthening the presidency.
The changes have already been approved by both houses of parliament, the country's Constitutional Court and were signed into law by Putin. He insisted that they be put to a vote, even though it is not legally required, in what many see as an effort to put a veneer of democracy on the controversial changes.
Holding the vote in the middle of a pandemic has elicited public health concerns, because Russia is still reporting over 7,000 new virus cases daily and has 606,000 confirmed infections in all, the third-worst caseload in the world.
The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed these concerns, saying that Russia was able to slow down the epidemic and assuring people that all necessary measures have been to ensure the safety of the voters.