Russia’s president has not had a good pandemic. But Vladimir Putin is staging a comeback and a plebiscite on constitutional reforms that could allow him to stay in power until 2036.
The vote will confirm changes already approved by parliament in March, and it didn’t have to happen now. Even so, the Kremlin pushed ahead and Putin wants citizens to come out in large numbers to back the measures.
With Russia still adding new coronavirus cases at a rate of more than 7,000 a day, it’s a scramble. It’s one that comes with some risks: Turnout is harder to predict during an epidemic and some people who respond to massive voting drives may not fall back into political apathy afterward.
Most important is the provision that resets the presidential term tally to zero, giving Putin the opportunity to stay at the helm longer than Joseph Stalin
Putin kicked off the year with the ambitious constitutional overhaul. The list of amendments is long. There is a greater presidential role in removing judges and an explicit mention of Russians’ belief in God. Plus there are guarantees around social benefits, including pensions.
Most important is the provision that resets the presidential term tally to zero, giving Putin the opportunity to stay at the helm longer than Joseph Stalin.
Crashing oil prices
Hit by the nation’s lockdown and crashing oil prices, the economy has foundered. Proceeding with the vote, which start today and will culminate on July 1, is an effort to wrest back control of the political agenda.
Putin needs not only a healthy majority, but a hefty turnout. At the very least, it must improve on the 1993 vote for the current constitution, when then-leader Boris Yeltsin encouraged a disillusioned electorate to a participation rate of just below 55%, with roughly 58% voting in favour (although the numbers were disputed).
More telling will be whether the new vote matches or beats the 67.5% turnout for the 2018 presidential election, when Putin won 77% of votes cast. Anything below that could be read as a drop in support.
Wednesday’s rescheduled Victory Day celebrations were a tried-and-tested appeal to nationalism and nostalgia, matching Putin’s efforts to recast Russia’s perceived role in World War II for the international crowd. Once voting kicks off, there will be prize draws as incentives.
In a national address on Tuesday, Putin announced extra handouts for families with children and the unemployed, along with higher taxes for top earners.
As Greg Yudin of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics explains, the Kremlin doesn’t want voters to remain mobilised afterward.
While a return to complacency may be likely with older voters, who are often more dependent on state media, there’s no guarantee younger, more dissatisfied citizens will stand down. And with each poll, the rallying call gets louder.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a noted opinion columnist