Russian voters have cleared the way for President Vladimir Putin to potentially rule for another 16 years as a virtual president-for-life, backing a controversial amendment to the constitution that resets term limits on his presidency.
The result means that when Putin's current six-year presidential term ends in 2024, he is free to run again — and again in 2030. The 67-year-old has already been in power, as president or prime minister, for 20 years, making him one of the world's longest-serving leaders.
Polls closed Wednesday in a seven-day nationwide referendum asking voters whether they were in favor of a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s 1993 constitution, which the Kremlin had pitched as necessary changes for the stability and moral health of the nation.
In the all-or-nothing vote, which presented voters a choice between backing all the changes or none of them, nearly 78 percent of voters voted for the amendments, with more than 21 percent against. Turnout was about 65 percent, according to the election commission.
Among the changes, which included a ban on same-sex marriage, "protection" of the family, and a reference explicitly asserting the country’s "faith in god", was a change that reset the clock on Putin's time in the presidency.
Russian law limits presidents to serve two six-year terms, but the amendment would reset this in Putin's case, said Nikolai Petrov, senior research fellow on Russia at the Chatham House think-tank.
"The amendment states it will be zeroed, and Putin will start anew," he told VICE News.
Campaign literature for the referendum, which framed the changes as necessary measures to safeguard traditional values, barely mentioned the change. Petrov said the term limit issue only received public attention in the past couple of weeks, with Putin justifying the move as necessary to avoid instability and distractions from the important work of government in the coming years.
"Experience tells me there will be searches at various levels of government for possible successors instead of normal ... work," Putin told a TV interviewer last week. "We need to work, not look for successors."
In his final TV appeal to voters Tuesday, he made no mention of the change to his term limit.
Petrov said the referendum was largely symbolic, as the changes to the constitution had already been ratified by Russian lawmakers and signed into law earlier this year. The laws stated, though, that they could only be enacted after getting popular support.
"The main reason to have this vote was to demonstrate that he has popular support," he said.
Russian opposition figures and independent election monitors denounced the vote. Golos, an independent Russian monitoring organization, alleged there were many flaws with the process, including opponents of the reforms being prevented from campaigning in the media, and election monitors appointed by a government body.
Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny dismissed the results as "a huge lie," writing in a blogpost that Putin had "refused to hold a real referendum in accordance with all the rules and with observers present".
"Because he understood: if there are rules — he will lose," he wrote.
The results also drew small protests, with activists in Moscow laying on the ground to form the number "2036" with their bodies, and another holding a sign reading: "Putin forever?"
But the result was welcomed by Putin’s allies, such as the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who posted a video to Telegram saying the Russian leader should be made "president for life".
Putin, who was returned to power in 2018 with 77 percent of the vote, has himself been coy about his ambitions, but has publicly said he wouldn’t rule out running for future terms.
"I have not decided anything for myself yet," he said in March. "I don’t exclude the possibility of this. If the constitution allows the opportunity, we will see."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.