Moscow             -       Russians go to the polls Thursday to cast early votes in a nationwide ballot on constitutional reforms that could see President Vladimir Putin remain in power until 2036.

Election officials say they are opening polls ahead of the official July 1 vote to avoid overcrowding that could spread coronavirus infections.

Masks and disinfectant gels are being made available to 110 million voters across 10 time zones, from the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Pacific Ocean.

The Kremlin reluctantly postponed the vote scheduled for April 22 as COVID-19 infections increased and officials imposed restrictions to slow the pandemic.

Putin introduced the reforms to the 1993 constitution in January this year, and they were hastily adopted by both houses of parliament and regional lawmakers.

He has insisted that Russians vote on the changes even though a referendum is not legally required, arguing that a plebiscite would give them legitimacy.

Opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny has slammed the vote as a populist ploy designed to give Putin the right to be “president for life”.

“It is a violation of the Constitution, a coup,” he said this month on social media. Among other changes, the reforms would reset Putin’s presidential term-limit clock to zero, allowing him to run two more times and potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036. Under current rules, 67-year-old Putin’s current term in the Kremlin would expire in 2024.

The opposition’s campaign against the reforms failed to gain momentum. Rallies scheduled in the Russian capital in April were barred under virus restrictions against public gatherings. The “No” website, which collected signatures of Russians opposed to the reforms, was blocked by a Moscow court, forcing it to relaunch under another domain name.

Senior political officials meanwhile have stressed the importance of giving Putin a chance to remain in power.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin described the reforms as necessary if the country wanted to “guarantee stability, remove uncertainty”.

The Russian leader said last week he had not decided whether to seek another term after 2024, but that it was essential he have the option of extending his term.

“Otherwise, I know that in two years, instead of working normally at all levels of the state, all eyes will be on the search for potential successors,” he said. “We must work and not look for successors.”

With the revised constitution already on sale in Moscow bookstores, the ballot is largely seen in Russia as a foregone conclusion.

Yet it comes as Putin is suffering historically low approval ratings over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, including hugely unpopular changes to the pension system.

In May, the independent polling group Levada published findings from April that showed Putin’s approval ratings were at an all-time low of 59 percent.

But on top of resetting Putin’s term limits, the reforms would consolidate presidential powers by allowing him to nominate top judges and prosecutors, for approval by the upper house of parliament.

The reforms also enshrine economic changes that guarantee the minimum wage will be no less than the minimum subsistence level while the state pension will be adjusted annually to inflation.

They include a mention of Russians’ “faith in God” despite a long history as a secular country, and a stipulation effectively banning gay marriage. These principles are at the heart of the conservative and patriotic value system regularly touted by Putin. The Kremlin hopes they will resonate with voters and attract a large turnout.

Ballot leaflets, posters, and billboards throughout the city do not mention Putin or the clause that would allow him to stay in power for more than a decade longer.

Instead the campaign centres around social imagery like a child kissing her grandmother under the slogan “For a guaranteed retirement”. Another poster features a Russian family that wants to “safeguard family values”.