Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed a landslide victory on Thursday as 78 percent of Russians supposedly voted in favor of constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain in power until 2036, while only 21 percent voted against.
As with most “democratic” exercises in authoritarian countries, the opposition raised questions about the fairness and honesty of the vote, but for now it appears Putin will stay in office for as long as he wishes.
Russia’s state-run RT.com said turnout approached 65 percent of eligible voters despite the coronavirus. Online voting was provided for cities with the worst coronavirus outbreaks, including Moscow. The constitutional referendum was originally scheduled for April but was delayed by the pandemic.
“The final day of voting largely proceeded incident-free, although several hundred people in Moscow and several dozen in St. Petersburg took to the streets to voice their opposition to the overhaul. The rally in the Russian capital was peaceful, and saw police officers handing out protective masks to the predominantly young activists,” RT.com reported.
A total of 206 constitutional amendments were on the ballot, many of them for social issues like a guaranteed minimum wage, inflation adjustments for pensions, defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and even a measure that stipulated presidents after Putin will be limited to two terms. The entire package was subjected to a single up-or-down vote, so there was no way for Russians to vote in favor of the minimum wage or honoring Russia’s World War Two dead while also voting against keeping Putin in charge for another 16 years.
As for voting irregularities, the Russian government admitted a total of 839 violations, most of them “minor” and unlikely to affect the final results. Ballots from one polling station in Moscow were disqualified due to possible ballot-box stuffing that was captured on camera.
The Kremlin rushed to declare the vote a “triumphal referendum” on “trust in President Putin,” as spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it.
“Certainly this highest turnout and highest level of support, which were seen today, would have been very difficult to forecast,” a giddy Peksov declared.
The Kremlin spokesman said the vote proves the Russian people support changes to the constitution that will “become a foundation for the better future of our country,” but was evasive about precisely when the hundreds of amendments will be put into effect.
Peskov said various world leaders were phoning Putin with congratulations on Thursday morning, prominently including Indian President Narendra Modi.
The New York Times quoted Russia experts who saw the bonkers package of constitutional changes as an important bit of political theater for Putin, who needs “the appearance of popular support to confer legitimacy on decisions he has already made.”
The NYT also quoted the judgment of an independent election monitor called Golos that the vote was “rigged from the start,” since it was “unfairly skewed by a noisy one-sided propaganda campaign by state-controlled media and blatant pressure from a sprawling galaxy of state-funded companies and organizations.”
Golos noted that some Russian state-controlled companies simply ordered their employees to march out and vote in favor of Putin’s amendments, with explicit threats that their jobs were on the line. The notorious practice of bribing voters with lottery games and grocery vouchers was reported at polling places across the country. Putin took a bit of a gamble by putting his legitimacy up for a vote, but the dice were clearly loaded.
Putin’s chief political adversary, frequently-jailed activist Aleksei Navalny, called the constitutional amendment vote a “shameful farce” that was “designed to cheat and deceive the public.”
Navalny was particularly contemptuous of Russian celebrities hired to push the referendum, noting that many of them somehow forgot to mention that one of the 206 amendments they were touting would make Vladimir Putin president-for-life.