• Russians voted on a package of more than 200 amendments in the first major overhaul of the constitution in three decades
  • Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny had urged his supporters to boycott the vote, calling it a farce
  • Voting began a week ago and included an online option

Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades, likely will be at the helm for 16 more years with the approval Wednesday of constitutional reforms that lifted rules restricting presidents to 12 consecutive years in office.

“All we have is Putin,” Galina Morozova, 81, told the Moscow Times outside a polling station in central Moscow. “We have to make sure he stays in power.”

Putin’s current term ends in 2024. He has been in power longer than any Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin, and the referendum was seen as a means of solidifying his power and eliminating limitations on his power, a process that began in 2003.

In his final push for approval, Putin told voters Tuesday: “We are voting for the country we want to live in … and which we want to hand down to our children.”

Partial results showed overwhelming approval of the constitutional reforms with some provinces voting 80% in favor.

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny had urged his supporters to boycott the vote, calling it a farce.

Small protests against the referendum were conducted throughout the day, including one on Red Square during which people lay prone on the pavement, arranged to spell out 2036, TV Rain reported. Dozens of activists were reported detained.

“We need to remind the authorities that we exist and that there are tens of millions of us who do not want Putin to rule until 2036,” activist Andrei Pivovarov said in an online video.

Voting began a week ago and included an online option.

The more than 200 amendments was the first overhaul of the constitution since it was written in 1991, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It gives Putin more control over foreign policy as well as local affairs.

Among the other changes were affirmation of faith in God, a definition of marriage, limiting it to heterosexual relationships, and a boost to pensions. Another amendment allows Russia to ignore judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. Russia is a member of the court.

“Many of the amendments are basically populist slogans,” anti-Putin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza said in a recent broadcast. “It’s not clear what this will mean in terms of implementation and practice.”

Voters Wednesday underwent temperature checks at Moscow polling places amid the coronavirus outbreak and were handed gift bags containing masks and gloves. Putin voted maskless Putin.

Members of the Communist party complained of irregularities. There were reports some voters were able to vote multiple times, with voter turnout in at least one province topping 100%.

“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.

The push for the referendum included direct 10,000-ruble payments ($141) to voters with children. There also were prize drawings for apartments and grocery vouchers.

Putin first proposed altering the constitution in January.