Russian voters approved changes to the constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to hold power until 2036.
However, the week-long plebiscite that concluded today was tarnished by widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.
With the nation's polls closed and 30 per cent of all precincts counted, 74 per cent voted for the constitutional amendments, according to election officials.
For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout without increasing crowds casting ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic — a provision that Kremlin critics denounced as an extra tool to manipulate the outcome.
A massive propaganda campaign and the opposition's failure to mount a coordinated challenge helped Putin get the result he wanted, but the plebiscite could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.
By the time polls closed in Moscow and most other parts of Western Russia, the overall turnout was at 65 per cent, according to election officials. In some regions, about 90 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.
On Russia's easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, nine hours ahead of Moscow, officials quickly announced full preliminary results showing 80 per cent of voters supported the amendments, and in other parts of the Far East, they said over 70 per cent of voters backed the changes.
Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned the turnout figures.
"We look at neighbouring regions, and anomalies are obvious — there are regions where the turnout is artificially (boosted), there are regions where it is more or less real," Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, told AP.
Putin voted at a Moscow polling station, dutifully showing his passport to the election worker. His face was uncovered, unlike most of the other voters who were offered free masks at the entrance.
The vote completes a convoluted saga that began in January, when Putin first proposed the constitutional changes. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of government, stoking speculation he might seek to become parliamentary speaker or chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.
His intentions became clear only hours before a vote in parliament, when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, proposed letting him run two more times. The amendments, which also emphasise the primacy of Russian law over international norms, outlaw same-sex marriages and mention "a belief in God" as a core value, were quickly passed by the Kremlin-controlled legislature.
Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades — longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — said he would decide later whether to run again in 2024. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants focused on their work instead of "darting their eyes in search for possible successors."
Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin's push to hold the vote despite the fact that Russia has thousands of new coronavirus infections each day reflected his potential vulnerabilities.
"Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he's worried about the future," Pavlovsky said. "He wants an irrefutable proof of public support."
Even though the parliament's approval was enough to make it law, the 67-year-old Russian President put his constitutional plan to voters to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the changes. But then the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing him to postpone the April 22 plebiscite.
Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during the outbreak have dented his approval ratings, which sank to 59 per cent, the lowest level since he came to power, according to the Levada Centre, Russia's top independent pollster.
Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin had faced a difficult dilemma: Holding the vote sooner would have brought accusations of jeopardising public health for political ends, while delaying it raised the risks of defeat. "Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky," she said.
The Golos monitoring group pointed out at unusual differences between neighbouring regions: in the Siberian republic of Tyva over 73 per cent voted in the first five days, while in the neighbouring Irkutsk region, turnout was about 22 per cent and in the neighbouring republic of Altai, it was under 33 per cent.
"These differences can be explained only by forcing people to vote in certain areas or by rigging," Golos said.