Putin Forever? Russians Vote to Change the Constitution
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03 JUL 2020 Spotlight
On 1 July, Russians across the country finished voting on amendments to the constitution of the Russian Federation, with 77.9% of votes approving the changes. Under the amendments, President Vladimir Putin gained the opportunity to hold office until 2036. However, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may hamper his chances in future presidential elections.
Photo: Kremlin Pool/Russian Look Photo: Kremlin Pool/Russian Look

What were the full results and circumstances of the vote?

According to official data, more than three-fourths of those voting (77.9%) supported the change in the Russian constitution, with high turnout of 68%, mainly because of the possibility of early voting (from 25 June). The result of the vote strengthens the legitimacy of President Putin and the current system of power in Russia. However, the weaker support and low social trust in him (about 59% and 25%, respectively) raise doubts about the credibility of the results. The constitutional changes were approved in March this year by parliament and the Constitutional Court and did not require public approval for entry into force. However, Putin decided to put the amendments to a vote for propaganda reasons in order to support legally questionable solutions. According to his statements, the amendments will enter into force immediately.

Why nationwide voting instead of a referendum?

The organisation of a special Russia-wide vote under a presidential decree allowed the authorities to avoid restrictions in legal provisions regarding referendums. Under those rules, at least 51% turnout would be needed, the organisers would have had to debate the subject of the vote, as well as ensure the participation of independent observers. The non-standard voting form used this week enabled flexibility in the approach to procedures, such as the use of mobile voting points (in tents, in yards, in private homes). The provisions of the 1996 Criminal Code on electoral fraud were not fully applicable either, which may have enabled manipulation without criminal consequences.

What are the most important constitutional amendments?

The changes in the Russian constitution concern political, identity, and social issues. They strengthen the president’s position and “reset” Putin’s terms. The president receives the right to force the prime minister to resign without having to dismiss the entire government. The head of state is also charged with ensuring harmonious functioning and cooperation between authorities, including local and regional ones. The constitutional amendments also introduced a provision demanding respect for Russian culture, protection of “historical truth”, and the Russian language. A reference to “God” was also made. It was pointed out that Russian youth are to be brought up with patriotic spirit and it was emphasized that the definition of family is a relationship between a woman and a man. In addition, articles on the indexation of pensions and assistance to families with many children were included in the constitution. The introduction of identity and social issues was a response to the expectations of Russians.

What is the “zeroing” of Putin’s term?

Putin will be able to stand again in the presidential elections in 2024 and 2030. According to the editors of the 1993 constitution, Putin’s current term would be his last, as the presidency can be held for a maximum of two terms in a row. An additional provision was introduced in the amended constitution, along with the deletion of the “in a row” clause. It provides that the limitation of two terms does not apply to a person holding the position of head of state at the time of entry into force of the amendments. In this way, despite four terms as president of Russia, Putin will be able to stay on for two more.

What are the likely consequences of the constitution change on Russia’s internal and foreign policy?

The result of the vote is a political signal to the Russian power elite and oligarchs that Putin will remain the guarantor of political and business relations in the Russian Federation for some time. In domestic policy, authoritarian tendencies will intensify, which will lead to increased control over society, and social peace will—in the opinion of the authorities—be ensured by increased social transfers. In foreign policy, postulates for promoting the Russian version of history will increase (including events connected to World War II), which will continue to harm relations with Poland. The Russian authorities also can be expected to continue to stand by their claims regarding, for example, denial about the facts of the annexation of Crimea and their recognition of the supremacy of Russian law over international law, for example, by rejecting judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.