The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russians overwhelmingly back amendments that will keep Putin in power, early returns show

Police officers, left, stand guard as voters prepare to cast their ballots July 1 at a polling station in Moscow. Voting stations had masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes on hand. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

MOSCOW — Nearly six months after President Vladimir Putin first suggested a raft of constitutional changes, Russians voted Wednesday on the culmination of an agenda to keep the president in power until 2036.

Russia’s parliament had already greenlighted the constitutional amendments, which, among other things, will give Putin a clean slate of presidential terms, meaning he can run two more times after his current term expires in 2024. So a public vote wasn’t necessary, except that Putin insisted on it. A big turnout was just as important to the Kremlin symbolically as the expected positive result.

Before voting fully wrapped up, Russia’s Central Election Commission released early results with numbers that would please Putin if they hold: a 65 percent turnout, with roughly 72 percent of the vote in favor of the amendments. The Kremlin’s goal was a 55 percent turnout.

“Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology,” wrote Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow and the chairman of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“If the turnout and votes in favor of changing the constitution are high enough, Putin will be able to use those figures as a license whenever the nation is unhappy, to say: ‘Look, it wasn’t just my administration and I, it was you who wanted this! Together we wanted to uphold this model of governance, and you share responsibility for it with me,’ ” Kolesnikov added.

Pandemic delayed vote

Putin’s plans were nearly derailed by the coronavirus pandemic; the vote was initially scheduled for April 22 but then postponed as the country’s infections skyrocketed. The resulting economic downturn from slumping oil prices led to a sharp drop in his popularity.

The independent Levada Center pollster reported that in April and May, 59 percent of survey participants said they approved of the job Putin was doing as president. Although such a number would be considered high for most world leaders, it has never before dipped below 60 for Putin in his 20-year reign.

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But even during what some analysts have referred to as the most challenging period of Putin’s presidency, Wednesday’s vote held no suspense. Russian bookstores started selling copies of the new constitution weeks ago.

Although the country still has the third-most confirmed covid-19 cases in the world, nearly all restrictions were lifted by June 24 — the day before the week-long early voting period started. Voting stations had masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes on hand.

Residents in Moscow and the Nizhny Novgorod region had the option to vote online, and local election commissions said Tuesday that nearly 1.1 million people had done so, including cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, who placed his e-vote from the International Space Station.

But the voter protection movement Golos said that as of Tuesday afternoon, it had received 1,587 reports of voting violations, 682 of which included evidence. Pavel Lobkov, a journalist for the independent television station Dozhd, said he was able to vote twice — once online and once in person. On Tuesday, a Muscovite family arrived at a voting station and learned that someone had already falsely voted for every member online.

Kremlin incentives

The head of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, told state TV last week that any instances of double-voting will be discovered “at the last stage.”

Amid multiple reports of businesses pushing employees to vote, a BBC Russia reporter was accidentally added to a WhatsApp group chat of Moscow Metro union workers that asked participants to vote, identify where they planned to vote and then report back after they had actually done so.

But while the vote was widely advertised — across billboards and with prize incentives — the constitutional amendments promising social welfare benefits or defining marriage as between a man and a woman were the ones emphasized. That a yes vote would help Putin consolidate power was rarely mentioned.

In his televised speech Tuesday to Russians that was recorded in front of a World War II memorial and was Putin’s final word to citizens before the main day of voting, he didn’t address what their approval would mean for him personally.

“We’re voting for the country that we want to live in: one with education and health care, with guaranteed social protection of citizens, with effective authorities accountable to the public,” he said.

“We are voting for the country for which we work and wish to hand to our children and grandchildren.”

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