Russians pressed Putin’s reset button, but questions of legitimacy persist over his long-term rule

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At first glance, everything seems to be preparing for the Kremlin. In March Valentina Tereshkova, Russian MP for the ruling United Russia party, called for a theatrical session of parliament for a constitutional amendment that would allow Putin to run for president again after his current term ends in 2024.

It was a movement charged with patriotic symbolism: Tereshkova, a former cosmonaut and the first woman to fly into space, is a living link to the days of Soviet success.

Putin appeared in the Parliament building an hour and a half later to approve the proposal, which then passed through both chambers and the country’s constitutional court. But plans for a yes or no referendum on the constitutional amendments on April 22 were suspended in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, and the postponed poll continues, supported by a blitz to vote.

But the challenge is more than just resetting the duration limits. The vote also became a referendum on the system that was built around Putin during his two decades in power. As many observers in Russia note, Putin’s “vertical power” system makes him the final arbiter among the elites, and their fortune is literally tied to being in control.

Russia in 2020 is not a dictatorship in the classic sense of the term: Putin depends on regular elections as a kind of plebiscite to legitimize his regime. Certainly, the Russian political system lacks checks and balances: the Parliament is full of loyalists and what the Russians call a “pocket” (that is, powerless) opposition; the president has great latitude in hiring and firing regional leaders; and the courts leave it to the executive.But Putin must follow the letter of the law: after all, he left the office to Dmitry Medvedev, remaining in power behind the scenes for a four-year interregnum while the new president amended the constitution.

What followed is instructive today: Medvedev introduced a set of constitutional reforms that extended presidential terms from six to four years, and allowed Putin to run for office. But the widespread allegations of electoral fraud that followed the 2011 parliamentary elections sparked a wave of pro-democracy protests that deeply worried the Kremlin.

Will Wednesday’s referendum cause the same challenge for Putin, or a new wave of street protests? It’s hard to predict, but members of the country’s small opposition struggling have already raised questions about falsification and irregularities in the referendum, which was opened for early voting since last week, a measure issued by election officials as a precaution against the coronavirus to allow social distancing.

Some Russians have turned to social networks to show their preference, posting NYET (not) on their profiles. Residents of Moscow and other major cities have pasted anti-Putin stickers alongside pro-amendment posters. Others have taken note of a curious fact: copies of the constitution were recently sold in bookstores, with the amendments already included, which has been widely commented on social media. This suggested to many Russians that the fix was in place.

State pollster VTsIOM released the first exit poll results on Monday that suggest that Putin will win approval of the amendments: according to these results, around 76% of respondents from 800 polling stations in Russia said they supported constitutional changes.

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Putin’s popularity has taken a hit with the coronavirus, but his approval ratings are still high. And the constitutional amendments include certain provisions – for example, language that consecrates marriage as being only between a man and a woman – that will appeal to a segment of conservative voters.

There is little to suggest that the result will not satisfy the Kremlin, but the state apparatus has worked overtime to increase voter turnout and add legitimacy to the controversial changes. A massive campaign for voting launched by authorities at all levels has a series of calls: television commercials promising big benefits, billboards showing happy families who voted “yes” and brochures with recipes and crosswords plastered at entrances to residential buildings. But the official publicity campaign for the referendum does not show that the constitution could solidify the reign of Putin until his 84 years and give him immunity from prosecution in his retirement.

The same goes for Putin’s own messages. In a short video clip released Tuesday, Putin appears in front of a new monument to Soviet soldiers and urges Russians to vote for “stability, security and prosperity”, saying that a new constitution means a future with good health care , education and “effective government accountable” to the public. It makes no mention of resetting its duration limits.

Putin addresses the nation on the eve of main polling day.

Independent vote observers also raised questions about widespread reports of voting violations. Even before the vote was launched last week, independent media and NGOs published dozens of screenshots and audio messages suggesting the forced vote of employers in large corporations and state-funded organizations. .

“In the past few days, we have also seen a large number of ballot paper jams. So it seems that at some point there [the organizers] that the administrative resources to mobilize the controlled electorate are running out, they can also vote in a slightly different way compared to that desired and they have resorted to good old ways of rigging “, Stanislav Andreychuk, co-charman of the no the government group Golos, told CNN.

According to Andreychuk, this plebiscite is much less regulated than the previous elections that his organization monitored: the voting booths installed on the park benches violate the secrecy of the vote, the usual restrictions on the publication of exit polls are not applied and the campaigns unregulated – aided by raffles promising apartments to lure voters to stations – blurring the right of the voter to exercise their will freely.

An outdoor polling station in Saint Petersburg.

Asked about anecdotal evidence of voting irregularities, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov questioned information shared by local media about polling stations in car trunks or on park benches.

“The interest in the vote is great, but it is too early to draw conclusions, wait, this is just the beginning,” he said in response to questions during a conference call with reporters.

Putin has already strongly signaled that he will introduce himself and that talking about resigning is an unnecessary distraction. In an interview that aired on state television in the run-up to the vote, Putin said he “did not rule out” running for a new term if voters approved the constitutional amendments.

” Yes this [constitutional change] doesn’t happen, in two years – I know from my own experience – instead of normal, regular work at different levels of power, everyone will start looking for possible successors, “he said. We must continue with work, not look for successors. ”

Still, the referendum has a chance to cast a cloud over Putin’s potential re-election – and theoretically, over his next two terms.

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