Politics 1 July 2020

Voting underway in Putin’s constitutional referendum

This week marked the beginning of the constitutional referendum that will likely ‘reset’ Putin’s presidential term count and allow him to remain Russian leader until 2036. In the build up to the vote, Putin gave a live TV address in which he praised Russia’s response to the coronavirus crisis and announced the biggest tax rise in over two decades.  

  • Voting in the referendum began Thursday and will last a week. Russians must give a simple yes/no answer to a question on whether they approve of a series of amendments to the constitution, including ‘resetting’ Putin’s term count. The internet was immediately flooded with photos from polling stations that — because of coronavirus — were on benches, in courtyards, car trunks, and children’s playgrounds. These ‘stations’ were no more than two or three electoral officials and an urn to collect votes. It may be safer to collect votes outdoors, but the opportunities for electoral fraud are obvious.  

  • In two regions (Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod) you can vote online. Problems with the system were found even before it launched: last week, a journalist at Dozhd TV station (who formerly worked at The Bell), Anton Baev, found that dozens of elderly people were being registered on the online voting system without their permission via forged sim-cards. Baev received a police summons for his efforts. 
  • Once voting began, another Dozhd journalist, Pavel Lobkov, voted twice: online and in person. After doing so, he described the process live on air on TV Rain, which resulted in a similar visit from the police. 

  • High turnout is the holy grail for Kremlin strategists. Media outlet Meduza reported (Rus), on a new system developed by state-owned companies to monitor whether their employees cast their ballots. It allows managers at state-owned companies to track staff members via individual QR codes that are scanned by volunteers at polling stations under the pretext of special raffles. 
  • Putin’s address to the nation this week was also an attempt to motivate voters. He promised one off payments to families with children, but more importantly, he announced an increase in the income tax rate from 13 to 15 percent for people earning over 5 million rubles ($71,000) annually. Putin suggested using this money (about $860 million a year) to provide medical treatment for children with rare illnesses.
  • The tax hike is a deeply populist measure designed to meet a demand for social justice, rather than help the economy. Less than 1 percent of Russians will be affected by the new tax, and most will barely notice a change (the higher rate will only be applied to the portion of income that is in excess of 5 million rubles). 

Why the world should care 

Demands for social justice are real, but people want fixed prices rather than higher taxes, according to Leonid Volkov, the deputy head of independent pollster the Levada Center. Hatred of ‘the rich’ is directed towards specific oligarchs from the 1990s, and not against all wealthy people. Volkov said that the increase in income tax is a desperate attempt to lift Putin’s falling approval ratings ahead of the referendum. Its effect will be fleeting, not long-term.