Russian voters have approved President Putin’s plans to change the constitution (and coincidentally allow him to serve two further six-year terms in office) by a margin of more than three to one in a national vote held over the past week.
The fact, and even the margin, of victory should surprise no one since there was no opposition campaign allowed and the regime pulled out all the stops to both boost turnout and secure a yes vote. There were also no effective election observers on the ground to highlight foul play.
The constitutional changes were announced in January, supposedly as a means of rebalancing power towards Parliament and away from the President. But at the last minute, in a carefully choreographed intervention, President Putin’s supporters in the Duma suggested that the term limits slate should be wiped clean, effectively allowing the incumbent a further twelve years in office after his current term ends in 2024.
Originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus, the decision has been made over the course of the week of voting following the massive Victory Day parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary the end of World War 2.
Putin’s efforts to boost turnout are not unique to this poll. For his re-election in 2018 he received more than 70% support on a turnout around 65% and he asked for the same again this time. And once again there are a massive range of measures, both official and not, in place to help him get his wish. So many measures, in fact, that even the loyalist chair of the Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has warned that turnout fraud could discredit the entire process.
The most legitimate (and a move that other countries could do well to learn from) allows electors to change their polling location via an app to make sure they don’t miss out because of work or travel commitments. Train stations, ice breakers and even the polar research base all had their own polling stations for this purpose and cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from space.
But, less officially, many tricks have been used to tempt people to vote. There were lots of beautification contests giving electors a choice over municipal spending to clear up local eyesores. Many polling stations hosted childrens concerts or offered cheap food and drink to encourage people along. Others held raffles with each voter given a ticket just for turning up. Sadly these might not have been quite the draw if the example of one Omsk polling station is anything to go by as the polling station chairperson conducting the draw happened to pick his own name in the contest to win an apartment.
Because of Covid-19, there was a fear that many electors will be dissuaded from voting through health concerns. A new law passed earlier this month extended the limited right to vote from home and allowed electors to vote in courtyards outside polling stations where it is thought the virus cannot be transmitted so easily. And in Moscow region a new internet voting system has been developed with more than 93% of those who registered to use the system turning out to vote, although there are allegations that people have been able to vote both over the internet and in person.
These changes would make life a lot more difficult for independent poll watchers if such existed. Longstanding domestic groups such as Golos no longer have the right to attend polling stations. If they want to observe they must join state-run Civic Chambers whose leaders – themselves state employees – will decide the wording of any observation statement. And because it is not a formal referendum, the law ‘does not envisage’ the presence of missions from the OSCE or any other credible international group. A group of far-right and other Kremlin-loyal politicians from Germany’s AfD and Italy’s League parties have been flown in to give approval to the poll, however.
There are reports of an effort to develop tracking software so that businesses can see whether their staff have voted. Such concern is usually unwarranted. Most companies rely to a greater or lesser extent on state contracts and, with the result of any poll or election a foregone conclusion, most employees recognise that their jobs are at risk if their firm does not record a high turnout. The odd vote against is accepted so long as participation is high. With the popularity of the regime so low, however, extra precautions have been taken. Notwithstanding that, there are some sections of society where high participation can be guaranteed and more than 90% of the military have voted.
In the past, apartment blocks in areas with historic records of low turnout, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, would find themselves ‘accidentally’ left off the voter list. Residents who turn up to vote receive an apology and are added to a special supplemental list. But anyone who fails to turn up was never on the list in the first place and so does not impact on turnout levels. Without observers on the ground, it is impossible to tell if that tactic is in use again, but it is reasonable to assume so as the President seeks the strongest mandate possible for his reforms. There are also the usual allegations that polling station officials have cast votes on behalf of those who do not turn up, even if they are dead. Anything to ensure that the area they are responsible for doesn’t draw attention to itself with a significantly low turnout.
Perhaps the only constraint on President Putin is that he could not afford to stretch credibility too far. Those who voted against the proposals or who boycotted the event altogether needed to see their decision reflected in the locally declared result. Whilst a WCIOM poll found that just 42% of Russians believe that the results will relate to the actual choices made by voters, the 70/70 formula was devised to be just about credible whilst giving a comprehensive thumbs up to the idea of President-for-Life Vladimir Putin.