A nationwide vote on a package of constitutional reforms wrapped up Wednesday local time. Polls have been open for a week to help reduce crowds and to bolster turnout amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Putin is all but guaranteed to get the result he wants following a massive campaign to get voters to say “yes” to the changes. However, the referendum — intended to consolidate his hold on power — could end up undermining his position because of the unconventional methods used to boost participation and the dubious legal basis for the balloting.
Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky said Putin’s push for holding the vote despite the ongoing pandemic reflects his potential vulnerabilities.
“Putin lacks confidence in his inner circle and he’s worried about the future,” Pavlovsky said. “He wants an irrefutable proof of public support.”
The balloting completes a convoluted saga that began with Putin’s state-of-the-nation address in January, when Putin first proposed the constitutional changes. He offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of the Russian government, stoking speculation he might continue calling the shots as parliament speaker or as chairman of the State Council when his presidential term ends in 2024.
The Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades, said he would decide later whether or not to run again in 2024. He argued that resetting the term count was necessary to keep his lieutenants focused on their work.
Putin complicated his constitutional plan by putting it to voters even though parliamentary approval was sufficient to make it law. The move was intended to showcase his broad support and add a democratic veneer to the constitutional changes. The plan backfired weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic engulfed Russia, forcing Putin to postpone the referendum, which had originally been scheduled for April 22.
The delay stymied Putin’s campaign blitz and left his constitutional reform plan hanging as the damage from the virus mounted and public discontent grew. Amid the uncertainty, Putin rescheduled the vote immediately upon seeing the first signs of a slowdown in Russia’s infection rate even though the number of new confirmed daily cases reported remains high.
Political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann said the Kremlin faced a difficult dilemma: holding the vote sooner would bring accusations of jeopardizing public health for political ends, while delaying it further raised the risk of defeat.
“The early date has an advantage of coming soon after lifting the quarantine restrictions that made 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 isn’t so much on boosting overall turnout, but rather on increasing attendance by the public sector workers who make up Putin’s base.
The authorities have mounted a sweeping effort to persuade teachers, doctors, workers at public sector enterprises and others who are paid by the state to cast ballots. Reports surfaced from many corners of the vast country that managers were coercing people to vote.
Most observers expect the Kremlin to get its way, regardless of the opposition’s strategies. Pavlovsky noted, however, that the unusual methods used by authorities to boost turnout and get the result Putin wants would undermine the legitimacy of the vote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.