Russia’s vote on constitutional amendments that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule until 2036 entered its final day Wednesday amid widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities.
For the first time in Russia, the polls were kept open for a week to help reduce crowds on election day and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic — a provision that Kremlin critics saw as just an another way to manipulate the vote.
Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive state propaganda campaign and the changes and the opposition’s failure to mount a coordinated challenge. Ironically, however, 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 ballot.
By Wednesday morning, the turnout already exceeded 55%, according to election officials. But Kremlin critics and independent election observers questioned official figures showing that in some regions up to 85% of eligible voters had turned out.
Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitoring group Golos, called the overall vote numbers “suspicious in general.”
“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,” Melkonyants told us.
The ballot completes a convoluted saga of concealment, deception and surprise that began in January, when Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in a state-of-the-nation address. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of the Russian government, stoking speculation he might continue calling the shots as parliamentary speaker or as chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.
The Russian leader’s intentions became clear only hours before a decisive vote in parliament, when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, suddenly proposed a measure to let him run two more times. The amendments, which also emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms, outlaw same-sex marriages and mention “a belief in God” as a core value, quickly sailed through 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 from “darting their eyes in search for possible successors instead of normal, rhythmical work.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin political consultant, said Putin’s unrelenting push to hold the vote despite the fact that Russia is reporting thousands of new coronavirus infections each day reflected the Russian leader’s potential vulnerabilities.
“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”
Even though parliamentary approval was enough to make it law, the 67-year-old Russian president put his constitutional plan to voters in a bid to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the changes. His maneuver backfired weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the plebiscite originally scheduled for April 22.
The delay made Putin’s campaign blitz lose momentum and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during Russia’s outbreak have dented Putin’s approval ratings, which sank to 59% during Russia’s outbreak, the lowest level since his ascent to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster.
Amid the uncertainty, Putin rescheduled the vote immediately upon seeing the first signs of a slowdown in Russia’s infection rate even though the daily confirmed cases remains high.
Moscow-based political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin had faced a difficult dilemma. Holding the vote sooner would have brought accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it further raised the risks of defeat, she said.
“A late vote could have been lost. Holding it in the autumn would have been too risky,” Schulmann said.
Schulmann argued that the Kremlin’s focus isn’t so much on boosting overall turnout but rather on increasing attendance by public sector workers.
The authorities have mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots. Reports surfaced from many corners of the vast country that managers were coercing people to vote.
Kremlin critics and independent monitors pointed out that the relentless pressure on voters coupled with new opportunities for manipulations from a week of early voting eroded the standards of voting to a new low.
The Golos monitoring group noted unusual differences between neighboring regions: in the Siberian republic of Tyva over 73% voted during the first five days, while in the neighboring Irkutsk region the turnout was around 22% and in the neighboring republic of Altai it was under 33%.
“These differences can be explained only by forcing people to vote in certain areas or by rigging,” Golos said.
Monitoring the vote became more challenging due to hygiene requirements and more arcane rules for election observers. The Kremlin also has used other tactics to increase turnout and support for the amendments.
Prizes ranging from gift certificates to cars and apartments were offered as an encouragement, giant billboards went up across Russia and celebrities posted ads for the “yes” vote on social media. Two regions with large numbers of voters — Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod — allowed electronic balloting and voters with Russian passports from eastern Ukraine were brought across the border in buses to vote.
Most observers expect the Kremlin to get its way, regardless of the opposition’s strategies.
“People are angry at the government, but they still don’t have any alternative to Putin,” Pavlovsky said.
He noted, however, that the unusual methods used by authorities to boost turnout and get the result Putin wants will undermine the legitimacy of the vote.
“The procedure has been distorted and simplified to the point when it would be difficult to trust the figures,” Pavlovsky said.