MOSCOW (AP) – They have offered prices ranging from gift cards to cars and apartments. They’ve put up billboards and recruited celebrities to provoke a ‘yes’ vote. They have encouraged state-owned companies such as hospitals and schools to pressure workers to register with the polls.
Russian authorities seem to be pulling out all the stops to get people to vote on constitutional changes that would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036 by resetting the clock on his term.
Meanwhile, the country’s divided opposition has failed to spark a major protest amid the bold election campaign and weeks-long vote beginning with the early vote on Thursday. Instead, critics question the legitimacy of the vote.
“Nothing will stop the Kremlin from getting the formal result it needs,” said former Kremlin speech writer, political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.
The changes include a change in the constitution that allows 67-year-old Putin, who has ruled Russia for more than two decades, to run two more six years after his current term ends in 2024. Other amendments deal with improving social benefits and effectively prohibit same-sex marriage, taking advantage of the country’s social conservatism and worries about falling incomes.
The amendments have already been approved by both chambers of parliament, the country’s Constitutional Court and have been signed into law by Putin, and the vote is seen as an attempt to coat democracy with controversial changes. Putin says he is confident that the “absolute majority” of the Russians will approve them.
According to Levada’s independent polling station, 44% of Russians said they would vote “yes” at the end of May, and 32% would vote “no”, but only 25% of “no” respondents intended to vote.
Those who do not support the amendments are not mobilized. (They are) demoralized and don’t know what to do, ‘says Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center.
The opposition has sent mixed signals. The most famous figure, Alexei Navalny, has rejected the vote as illegal, saying that it does not make sense to participate, even if he votes against the amendments.
Do you want to vote ‘no’? This strategy seems naive and a bit laughable. But if that’s what your heart wants – go vote ‘no’. The important thing is not to recognize the legitimacy of the voice, because it is a scam, ‘said Navalny on his YouTube channel.
The Navalny team has supported a strike by electoral workers who do not want to risk contracting the corona virus at polling stations. But the strikers admit they haven’t gotten a lot of traction – so far, an open letter has garnered just over 500 signatures. In Moscow alone, there are about 2,000 workers, Sergei Lebedev, who signed the letter, adding that he expected more support.
“Reporters often ask if we want to derail the vote. Of course not, ”he said, adding that he doubted that enough polling stations would strike.
The vote was scheduled for April, but was postponed due to the pandemic. Putin rearranged the vote to finalize on July 1, saying Russia has passed the peak of its outbreak, even though the number of new infections is still hovering around 9,000 a day.
Some Moscow politicians and journalists launched a “no!” campaigned against the amendments, but the virus lock prohibited demonstrations and the authorities even detained individual pickets.
Most operations took place online. Live YouTube meetings and social media hashtag campaigns have shown that a significant number of people do not support the changes, said Yulia Galyamina, one of the founders of “No!”
However, she admitted it couldn’t compete with the Kremlin’s operation.
“Society is under the influence of ubiquitous (state) propaganda. We have neither the means nor the ability to organize propaganda of this magnitude, “said Galyamina.
The biggest problem faced by voting organizers is emerging – luring people to the polls after weeks of coronavirus locks and at a time when public support for Putin is declining: in April and May, its traditionally high approval rating hit a historic low of 59%, according to the Levada Center.
Authorities have started to use incentives. A constitutional quiz – conveniently located near polling stations – with top prices for a car or an apartment has been organized in the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk. Moscow authorities have allocated 10 billion rubles ($ 145 million) in gift cards to voters’ shops and restaurants.
Patriotism and even homophobia has also been called upon. A video used gay stereotypes to spread the message that same-sex couples could adopt children without the amendments.
Critics say that the way voting is organized leaves room for manipulation and fraud. To prevent a large crowd from forming, the polls are open seven days through July 1. It is not clear who will keep an eye on the ballot boxes during the regular disinfection breaks, when everyone, including pillars and supervisors, has to leave the premises.
There will also be fewer independent observers because more bureaucratic hurdles have been added.
Online voting is also allowed in the Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod regions, with a combined population of nearly 16 million.
“The whole process from start to finish is focused on rigging, which is very easy to do,” said Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election control group Golos.
Critics say these tactics reflect the government’s struggle to mobilize supporters. They note that social media posts from celebrities who support the amendments have been flooded with comments against them.
The opposition has shifted its focus to uncovering potential voice fraud.
“The result of the vote has already been decided. I don’t think they will even count anything, they will only announce the results they prepared, ‘opposition politician and Navalny ally Vladimir Milov said on Instagram.
Milov said the vote could still play in favor of the opposition because “people will see tons of rigging and be outraged.”
Some anger is already being felt, especially among those pressured to vote by their employers, Melkonyants said.
“People feel like it’s not being done for them, all these changes,” he said. “People feel there is some form of fraud.”
Political analyst Gallyamov echoed Milov’s sentiment, “The question is whether society will trust the result.”
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.