MOSCOW (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin is just a step away from completing his most important political project of the year – constitutional changes that would allow him to extend his rule until 2036.
A nationwide plebiscite on the amendments that would reset the clock on Putin’s tenure and allow him to serve another six years will end Wednesday after a week of early voting. For the first time in Russia, polls were open for a week to help ease the crowds and bolster emergence during the coronavirus pandemic.
Putin is almost guaranteed to get the result he wants after a large-scale campaign to get Russian voters to say “yes” to the changes. However, the plebiscite intended to consolidate its hold on power could undermine its position due to the unconventional methods used to encourage participation and the questionable legal basis for the vote.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin political adviser, said that Putin’s unremitting efforts to keep the voice despite the high coronavirus infections reflect the potential vulnerabilities of the Russian leader.
“Putin has no confidence in his inner circle and he is concerned about the future,” said Pavlovsky. “He wants irrefutable proof of public support.”
The vote finishes a complicated saga of concealment, deception and surprise that started in January when Putin first proposed constitutional changes in a speech on the state of the nation. He offered to broaden parliamentary powers and redistribute powers among the branches of the Russian government, calling for speculation that he could continue calling the registers of parliament or as president of the state council when his presidential term in office 2024 ends.
The amendments, which also emphasize the priority of Russian law over international standards, prohibit same-sex marriages and mention “a belief in God” as core values, quickly circulated through the Kremlin-controlled parliament.
While speculation circulated about Putin’s future, the 67-year-old leader remained poker face until March 10. That was when legislator Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet-era cosmonaut who was the first woman in space in 1963, suddenly proposed a measure to let Putin walk twice more. In a carefully choreographed show, Putin arrived in parliament just before the final vote to endorse Tereshkova’s proposal.
The maneuver amazed Russian political elites who were guessing into Putin’s future and possible successors. Many saw resetting deadlines as an attempt by Putin to avoid becoming a lame duck and suppress a power struggle in his inner circle.
The Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades – longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin – said he would later decide whether to run again in 2024. He argued that resetting the count was necessary to continue to shoot his lieutenants “looking for possible successors instead of normal, rhythmic work.”
While Putin used his KGB-trained deceptive skills to deceive both the public and his own entourage, he complicated his constitutional plan by submitting it to voters, even though parliamentary approval was enough to make it law.
The movement was intended to show its broad support and add a democratic veneer to the constitutional changes. But it failed weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic flooded Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the plebiscite originally scheduled for April 22.
The delay hampered Putin’s campaign blitz and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus increased and public discontent grew. The plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during the outbreak of Russia have dropped its approval ratings, dropping to 59% during the outbreak of Russia, the lowest level since its rise to power, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster .
Amid the uncertainty, Putin reshuffled the vote immediately after seeing the first signs of a contagion rate slowdown in Russia, although the number of new cases confirmed daily remains high.
Ekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow political analyst, said the Kremlin was facing a difficult dilemma. Earlier votes would imply the allegations that public health is being endangered for political purposes, while the postponement further increases the risk of defeat, she said.
“A late mood could have been lost. Holding it in the fall would have been too risky, ”Schulmann said.
She noted that the vote comes shortly after the government’s lifting of the coronavirus restrictions has sparked the public vote.
“The early date has the advantage of coming soon after quarantine restrictions are lifted, making voters feel more optimistic,” she said. “And in general, people are in a better mood during the summer season.”
Schulmann argued that the Kremlin’s focus is not so much on increasing the overall turnout, but rather on increasing the turnout of public sector workers who form Putin’s base.
The authorities have made a tremendous effort to convince teachers, doctors, public company employees and others paid by the state to vote. Reports emerged from many corners of the vast country that managers forced people to vote.
The Kremlin has also used other tactics to increase turnout and support for the changes.
Prices ranging from gift cards to cars and apartments were offered as encouragement, giant billboards went up all over Russia, and celebrities posted ads for the ‘yes’ vote on social media.
Two regions with a large number of voters – Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod – allowed electronic voting.
At the same time, voting became more challenging due to hygiene rules and more secretive rules for election observers. Kremlin critics argued that these would increase the likelihood of voice fraud.
Russia’s weakened and fragmented opposition split into two camps over the amendments: those who called for a boycott of the vote, such as the Kremlin’s most visible enemy, Alexei Navalny, and those who voted in favor of the constitutional changes.
Most observers expect the Kremlin to have its way regardless of opposition strategies.
“People are angry with the government, but they still have no alternative to Putin,” said Pavlovsky.
However, he noted that the unusual methods used by the authorities to increase voter turnout and get the result Putin wants would undermine the legitimacy of the vote.
“The procedure is so distorted and simplified that it is difficult to trust the numbers,” said Pavlovsky.
Schulmann also warned that the vote is unlikely to meet its intended goal of strengthening Putin’s rule as the economic pain of the corona virus increases.
“I don’t think the vote will be considered legitimizing,” she said, in parallel to the 2018 presidential election that Putin won with 77% of the vote, only to see public support rapidly diminishing as living standards stagnate and the government made the unpopular decision to raise the retirement age.
“Now the situation has become more radical and both the approval and trust ratings are lower than two years ago,” she said.
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.