The Russians pushed the reset button for Putin, but questions of legitimacy linger over his long-term rule.

At first glance, everything seems to plan for the Kremlin. In March Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian deputy from the ruling United Russia party, called in a theatrically prepared parliamentary session for a constitutional amendment that would allow Putin to run for president again after his current term ends in 2024.

It was a movement laden with patriotic symbolism: Tereshkova, a former cosmonaut and the first woman to fly in space, is a living connection to the days of Soviet achievement.

Putin appeared in the parliament building just an hour and a half later to endorse the proposal, which then browsed through both houses and the country’s constitutional court. But plans for a yes or no referendum on constitutional amendments on April 22 were suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic, and rescheduled voting is now underway, backed by a blitz to get out of the vote.

But there is more at stake than simply resetting the time limits. The vote has also become a referendum on the system that has been built around Putin during his two decades in power. As many observers in Russia point out, Putin’s “vertical power” system makes him the final arbiter among the elites, and his fortunes are literally tied to his remaining in charge.

Russia in 2020 is not a dictatorship in the classical sense: Putin relies on regular elections as a kind of plebiscite to give his government legitimacy. To be sure, Russia’s political system lacks checks and balances: Parliament is chock-full of loyalists and what the Russians call a “pocket” (that is, powerless) opposition; the president has ample freedom to hire and fire regional leaders; and the courts differ from the executive branch.

But Putin must follow the letter of the law: After all, he left the office for Dmitry Medvedev, remaining in power behind the scenes for a four-year inter-term as the new president changed the constitution.

What followed is instructive today: Medvedev introduced a set of constitutional reforms that increased the presidential terms to six to four years and allowed Putin to function again. But the widespread allegations of electoral fraud that followed the 2011 parliamentary elections led to a wave of pro-democracy protests that deeply troubled the Kremlin.

Will Wednesday’s referendum provoke the same challenge for Putin, or a new wave of street protests? That is difficult to predict, but members of the country’s small, combative opposition have already raised questions about manipulation and Irregularities in the referendum, which was opened for early voting since last week, a measure issued by election officials as a coronavirus precaution to allow social distancing.
Voting by mobile ballot box in Moscow on Monday.

Some Russians have turned to social media to show their preference, posting NYET (not) on their profiles. Residents of Moscow and other major cities affixed anti-Putin stickers alongside posters for amendments. Others have taken note of a curious fact: copies of the constitution recently went on sale in bookstores, with the amendments already included, something widely commented on social networks. That suggested to many Russians that the solution was at stake.

State pollster VTsIOM released early exit poll results on Monday suggesting Putin will get approval of the amendments: According to those results, about 76% of respondents in 800 polling centers in Russia said they supported constitutional changes.

Anti-gay viral video sparks outrage ahead of Russian referendum
Putin’s popularity has been affected during the coronavirus, but his approval ratings remain high. And the constitutional amendments include some provisions, for example, language that enshrines marriage as the only marriage between a man and a woman, which will appeal to a segment of conservative voters.

There is little to suggest that the outcome will not satisfy the Kremlin, but the state apparatus has been working overtime to increase voter participation and add legitimacy to the controversial changes. A massive campaign for voting launched by the authorities at all levels has a range of appeals: TV commercials promising great social benefits, billboards showing happy families who voted ‘Yes’ and flyers with recipes and crossword puzzles at the entrances of residential buildings. But the official publicity campaign for the referendum does not highlight that the constitution could solidify Putin’s reign until he is 84 years old and give him immunity from prosecution when he retires.

The same is true of Putin’s messages. In a short video released Tuesday, Putin appears before a new memorial 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 a “effective government in debt”. for the public. “It does not mention the restoration of its term limits.

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

Independent voting supervisors have also raised questions about widespread reports of voting violations. Even before the vote began last week, independent media and NGOs released dozens of screenshots and audio messages suggesting the forced vote of employers by large corporations and state-funded organizations.

“In recent days we have also seen a large number of ballot fillings, so it seems that at some point it was clear [the organizers] that administrative resources to mobilize the controlled electorate are running out, they may also vote in a slightly different way compared to the desired one and have resorted to good and old forms of fraud, “Stanislav Andreychuk, co-head of government group Golos, he told CNN.

According to Andreychuk, this plebiscite is much less regulated than the previous elections that his organization supervised: the voting tables installed on the park benches violate the secrecy of the vote, the usual restrictions on the release of exit polls are not enforced and unregulated campaigns, with the help of promising apartment raffles luring voters to the stations: blurring the voter’s right to freely exercise their will.

An open-air electoral college in Saint Petersburg.

When asked about anecdotal evidence of voting irregularities, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov questioned reports shared in local media about polling stations set up in the trunk of cars or on park benches. .

“Interest in voting is great, but it is too early to draw conclusions, wait, it has just started,” he said in response to questions in a conference call with journalists.

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

“Yes is [constitutional change] it doesn’t happen, in two years, I know from my own experience, instead of normal and constant work at various levels of power, everyone will start looking for possible successors, “he said.” We have to continue working, not looking for successors. “

Still, the referendum has a chance to cast a cloud over Putin’s possible reelection, and theoretically, in his next two terms in office.