MOSCOW -- The Kremlin has obtained an overwhelming vote in favor of constitutional changes that will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, as Russians turned out to back them in a national referendum that concluded today.
The result on Wednesday in the weeklong referendum came as little surprise amid a massive campaign by authorities to push people to vote and widespread concerns about pressure on voters and manipulation.
It opens the way for Putin, who has ruled Russia since 1999 -- only interrupted between 2008 and 2012 when Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian president -- to run again for two more six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024. It potentially means Putin could rule for 16 more years, when he will be in his eighties.
Hours even before polls closed, Russia's Central Elections Commission announced preliminary data showing over 70% of voters had voted in favor of the package of constitutional changes. And by late night in Moscow and with over 95% of the votes counted, the commission said nearly 78% of voters had voted in favor of the constitutional changes and roughly 21% against.
Wednesday was the last day in the vote which has been stretched out across seven days, in what authorities have said is a measure to facilitate social distancing amid Russia's coronavirus epidemic, which in many parts of the country is worsening.
Russians were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on a package of over 200 amendments which included guarantees to boost pensions as well as changes that will inscribe some conservative values promoted under Putin into the constitution. Those included enshrining the concept of marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as an affirmation of Russians' belief in "God."
Critics of the move have denounced it as an illegal "constitutional coup." On Wednesday evening a few hundred people gathered on Moscow's central Pushkin Square to protest. Russia's anti-Kremlin opposition accused authorities of falsifying the result, pointing to exit polls they had conducted themselves in Moscow and St. Petersburg suggesting the amendments had been voted down.
The vote was already largely symbolic, as Russia's parliament had already passed the amendments into law. But the vote allows for the Kremlin to say the changes have a stamp of public legitimacy.
"Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology," Andrey Kolesnikov, a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie foundation wrote in a column this month.
In a speech on the eve of the referendum, Putin -- who voted at a polling station in Moscow on Wednesday -- made no mention of its potential to extend his rule. Some analysts believe he has sought the constitutional changes now to prevent himself from becoming a lame duck ahead of 2024 and head off efforts to succeed him.
Putin himself this month said the vote was needed to prevent officials' "eyes from drifting around hunting for successors."
The vote came at a time when Putin's own popularity suffered an unusual weakening. A poll by Russia's only independent pollster in May showed Putin's approval rating had fallen to 59%, its lowest in 20 years. Another poll by Levada in January has shown the number of Russians who "trust" Putin has almost halved in two years.
That slide has been exacerbated by the arrival of the pandemic and its economic fallout, which the government has provided little help against.
And while many Russians still support Putin, his move to remain in power beyond 2024 is highly controversial according to Levada's polling. Denis Volkov, Levada's deputy director told ABC News last week that his polling showed Russians were split roughly "50-50" on the issue.
Authorities have employed a sweeping campaign to ensure a high turnout, offering the chance to win prizes, including cash and even apartments to those taking part. Russian celebrities have also been offered payments to make statements supporting the amendments.
There were also widespread reports of public sector workers, including doctors and teachers, being pressured to vote, a common tactic in former Soviet countries.
Authorities have used the coronavirus epidemic to loosen up voting rules. People were allowed to vote from home and at their workplaces and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, online. Many of those measures offer greater opportunities for ballot rigging, election transparency activists have said.
Two journalists this week reported they had voted twice, once online and another time at a polling station. One, Pavel Lobzov, a broadcaster at the liberal station TV Rain, was questioned by police afterwards.
The total turnout for the vote according to the elections commission was over 65%, notably higher than what Levada's polling and many other political observers had predicted was realistic.
Opposition activists from a campaign against the referendum called "Nyet" or "No," said their own exit poll in Moscow -- where Putin is far less popular than elsewhere -- showed 55% of voters had voted against the amendments, versus 45% for.
The opposition had been divided over whether to boycott the vote and many opposed to the changes had said they would stay home. Russia's leading opposition figure, Alexey Navalny said it was clear the result had been decided in advance.
"We watched a show, with a pre-planned finale," Navalny said in a video posted on Youtube.
Golos, an NGO that monitors elections said it had recorded over 1,000 violations during the vote. Russia's elections commission and the Interior ministry said the number of violations were not enough to affect the outcome of the vote.
At polling stations in Moscow this week, some voting "for" told ABC News they support the conservative additions to the constitution and want Putin to remain in power.
"Why should we exchange a president for another president? He'll come and not know [what to do]," Lyudmila Trukacheva, 67, said after voting. "Putin's sensible, smart. He's an Orthodox person," she said.
In gaining the resounding result Putin hopes to affirm his own power among Russia's elite unsettled by the prospect of his term ending, Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident fellow at the Moscow Carnegie foundation wrote in an article published before voting ended on Wednesday.
"Essentially, he is banning his associates from looking around for a successor and from discussing his own future," she wrote.
"But the pragmatic elites will have a far more sober view of things. They know exactly how voting works in Russia, and that same 70 percent can easily be read as 25 percent real support, or even as a loss of trust entirely," she wrote.