MOSCOW (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most important political project of the year – a constitutional vote to extend his reign to 2036 – will end on Wednesday.
The nationwide vote on the amendments that would reset Putin’s time and allow him to serve two more six-year terms is entering his last day. For the first time in Russia, polls were open for a week to help ease the crowds and support 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. Ironically, the plebiscite intended to consolidate its hold on power could ultimately erode its position because of 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, raising speculation that he could continue calling the registers of parliament or the president of the state council when his presidential term in 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 casting 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 slowed down Putin’s campaign blitz and lost his constitutional reform plan 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.
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 is considered legitimate,” she said.
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