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Early results show approval for letting Putin rule to 2036

Russian President Vladimir Putin shows his passport to a member of an election commission as he arrives to take part in voting at a polling station in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The vote on the constitutional amendments that would reset the clock on Russian President Vladimir Putin's tenure and enable him to serve two more six-year terms is set to wrap up Wednesday. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian voters are overwhelmingly approving constitutional amendments that would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for another two terms and potentially extend his rule until 2036, according to early referendum results.

The Central Elections Commission said that with 15% of precincts counted, the amendments package got the approval of 71 % of voters. Those results were announced Wednesday night before the last polling places in the country closed, reflecting both early voting that took place for the past week and the time difference between Moscow and Russia’s distant eastern regions.

The balloting was tarnished by reports of pressure on voters, other irregularities and concern that the early voting could not be monitored properly.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

MOSCOW (AP) — A vote on amendments to Russia’s constitution that could allow President Vladimir Putin to hold power until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.

For the first time in Russia, polls were 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.

Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive state propaganda campaign and the opposition’s failure to mount a coordinated challenge. Ironically, the plebiscite aimed at consolidating Putin’s grip could end up eroding his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.

By Wednesday morning, the overall turnout already exceeded 55%, according to election officials, and kept climbing through the day to reach almost 90% of eligible voters in some regions.

After polls closed in Russia’s easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, nine hours ahead of Moscow, officials announced preliminary results showing 80% of voters supported the amendments, and in other parts of the Far East, they said over 70% of voters backed the changes.

Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned official figures.

“We look at neighboring 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 The Associated Press.

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 emphasize 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.”

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