July 2 (UPI) -- Russians overwhelmingly voted to pass constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, according to preliminary results released Thursday.
Russia's Central Election Commission said Thursday that nearly 77.92 percent voted "yes" to the 200-some amendments to 21.27 percent who voted "no" while estimating that 65 percent of eligible voters cast ballots during the weeklong vote that ended Wednesday.
Russia's constitution stipulates that a president must step down after serving two six-year terms but the amendments voted on this week will allow Putin to sit at the head of the government for an additional two terms.
The opposition has accused the vote of being rigged with pro-democracy activist and local politician Alexey Navalny describing the tally as "a record of fake votes" that don't "even have anything to do with people's opinions."
"The best reaction to what happened is not despair and anxiety but the mobilization of thousands of observers this fall and the defeat of United Russia in the regional elections, where at least some procedure has remained," he said via Twitter, referring the ruling political party of the country.
Russia's parliament had already passed the amendments, rendering the vote unnecessary other than Putin had insisted on it being held.
Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Putin needs the vote to prove he is supported by a majority.
"Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology," Kolesnikov wrote. "If the turnout and votes in favor of changing the constitution are high enough, Putin will be able to use those figures as a license whenever the nation is unhappy, and say: 'Look, it wasn't just my administration and I; it was you who wanted this!'"
Rep. Eliot Engle, chairman of the House committee on foreign affairs, lambasted the referendum as being rigged to legitimize Putin's rule.
"With an iron fist, Vladimir Putin tramples on the human rights of the Russian people, wages war against Russia's neighbors, meddles in the elections of freedom-loving countries around the world and order the brutal killings of his political rivals dissidents and those that seek to expose corruption," the New York congressman said in a statement. "Now, because of a rigged process designed to give Putin false legitimacy, the Russian people will be forced to endure his rule for many years to come."
The commission, however, has said the vote was held with the maximum transparency with some 526,000 election observers throughout the country monitoring the vote as well video surveillance was used in 80 of the 85 regions.
"More than a million members of election commissions, observers, media representatives, law enforcement officers were at the polling stations and completed the multi-day process of nationwide voting, each fulfilling its important public mission," commission chairman Ella Pamfilova said.
The commission said on Twitter it received 7,196 complaints from citizens over the vote, 591 of which were received on election day, ruling none of the 92 percent they considered warranted a commission meeting.
Putin, 67, has led Russia as either president or prime minister since 1999.
The vote was originally scheduled for April 22 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.