Russian President Vladimir Putin won a resounding endorsement of his bid to extend his two-decade-long rule potentially to 2036, even as some polls show his approval ratings near historic lows.
The Central Election Commission said 78% of Russians voted for the proposal, with 99.9% of precincts counted. Turnout was 65%. Authorities released the first vote counts even before polls closed.
Amid rising public discontent about stagnant living standards, the Kremlin pulled out all the stops to ensure a high turnout and resounding approval in balloting that started last week. Authorities wooed Russians with populist sweeteners such as an effective constitutional ban on gay marriage, along with prize drawings for voters, while playing down the removal of term limits for Putin and blocking any campaigning against a ‘yes’ vote.
“The main result is the formal legitimization of the zeroing” of presidential term limits for Putin, said Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation. “Plus the ability to maintain a relatively high level of declared approval for the actions of the authorities, even though the pandemic hasn’t scored many points for them.”
Putin, a former KGB colonel who was first elected in 2000, is already the longest-serving Russian leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The plan would give him the right to run for two more six-year terms after his current mandate runs out in 2024. While insisting he hasn’t decided if he’ll run again, Putin said last month speculation over a possible successor would be destabilizing.
A ratings slump
The 67-year-old leader is confronting a slump in poll ratings as Russia’s economy reels under the impact of the coronavirus epidemic and a collapse in oil prices. Once the referendum is out of the way, the Russian president will face the task of navigating through one of the deepest recessions of his time in office.
The referendum failed to pass only in the Arctic Nenets Autonomous Region, where the proposal got only 46% for and 53% against, according to RIA Novosti.
Putin caught even many in his inner circle by surprise in January when he announced plans to carry out the most extensive reform of the constitution since it was adopted in 1993. But the clause allowing him to sidestep term limits didn’t appear until March, even if some officials later suspected that had been his plan all along.
Putin’s popularity rating at 60% — though still respectable by western standards — is around the lowest levels since he became president in 2000, according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow.
After years of stagnation, Russia’s economy may shrink by 6.6% this year, the worst contraction since 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, according to the International Monetary Fund. Real incomes are falling, while unemployment climbed to 6.1% in May from 4.7% in March.
On the eve of the vote, Putin sought to win over ordinary Russians by unveiling fresh cash payments for families and the unemployed and a tax increase for the rich.
Small, scattered protests were reported around the country, including one in the capital that drew a significant police presence. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, where critical views of the Kremlin are stronger, opponents of the plan said their small exit polls showed ‘no’ votes prevailing. Official results contradicted that.
“This vote will even more strongly polarize society and divide the majority from the minority,” said Boris Makarenko, president of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow political consultancy.
“This is a dangerous precedent of the complete destruction of electoral procedures,” he added. “The temptation will be very strong to repeat these practices at later elections.”
State workers were pressured into voting, according to election monitoring group Golos, that the use of large-scale online balloting for the first time and the week-long process made it harder for independent observers to uncover any violations.
“Unprecedented compulsion on the part of employers was reported,” said Grigory Melkonyants, Golos co-chairman. Local election commissions “took advantage of the completely intransparent nature of the procedures to manipulate turnout and ballots,” he said.
The official result of 78% for the proposals came in higher than an exit poll conducted by state-run pollster Vtsiom, which found 71% of Russians had supported the plan.
Elections chief Ella Pamfilova said Wednesday no significant violations had been detected.
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