Skeptics believe Russia’s race to ease lockdown is because Putin wants to hold a vote on constitutional reform — that would allow him to remain president until 2036 — as soon as possible. This week, Putin announced that the referendum will be held on 1 July. From the Kremlin’s point of view, there are good reasons for haste: Putin’s approval rating has dropped during the pandemic and social distancing rules will make vote rigging much simpler.
- Officially, the referendum will take place on 1 July, but, in reality, voting will last a week and the polls will be open from 25 June to avoid large crowds. This date was not chosen at random: major public celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany will be held the day before (postponed from the usual date of 9 May). The Kremlin is hoping the festivities will provide a “mobilizing effect” of “enthusiasm and positivity”, a source told (Rus) Vedomosti newspaper.
- Putin announced the raft of proposed constitutional amendments back in January. There are 206 changes in total, but the most important is an amendment allowing Putin to ‘reset’ his presidential term count, meaning he could stand for re-election in both 2024 and 2030. Other changes will expand the powers of the presidency, and significantly reduce the scope of the Constitutional Court.
- Holding the referendum as the number of coronavirus cases in Russia is decreasing slowly appears odd. But the Kremlin is making a political calculation that sooner is better amid Putin’s falling approval ratings. Only 27 percent of respondents named Putin as a politician whom they trust in an April survey conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). His popularity has been hit by declining real incomes, which are unlikely to recover until at least the end of 2020.
- The epidemic also offers many opportunities to falsify results. Ways to bend the rules were described (Rus) in detail this week by Grigory Melkonyants, director of voting rights NGO Golos. Not least is that COVID-19 provides an excuse for ramping up early voting and voting from home, both of which are easier to manipulate. And when it comes to polling stations, social distancing rules mean voting booths will be disinfected every hour, giving many opportunities for zealous officials to engage in ballot stuffing.
- According to the latest survey by VTsIOM, 67 percent of the electorate plan to vote and 61 percent say they will vote in favor of the changes. This is less than Putin received in the last presidential election, but propaganda efforts will redouble over the coming weeks. Traditionally, celebrities (Rus) are involved in this sort of campaigning, which often generates controversy. Outrage erupted this week over a video (Rus) produced by a company controlled by Evgeny Prigozhin, a tycoon known as ‘Putin’s chef’ who allegedly founded the St. Petersburg ‘troll factory’ and mercenary company Wagner. The clip suggested if the constitutional changes were defeated, gay marriages could be legalized, and gay couple allowed to adopt. YouTube deleted the video after complaints.
Why the world should care
Putin had grand political plans for 2020. Lavish Victory Day celebrations were meant to accompany a referendum preparing the ground for his triumphant elevation to monarch-like status. But it was all blown off course by the epidemic and all now looks more risky.