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[Clara Ferreira Marques] Putin puts his post-COVID comeback to a vote

Russia’s president has not had a good pandemic. But Vladimir Putin is staging a comeback, with a touch of foreign-policy grandstanding, a dash of military theater and a plebiscite on constitutional reforms that could allow him to stay in power until 2036.

The vote will confirm changes already approved by parliament in March, and it didn’t have to happen now. Even so, the Kremlin pushed ahead and Putin wants citizens to come out in large numbers to back the measures. With Russia still adding new coronavirus cases at a rate of more than 7,000 a day, it’s a scramble that exposes an uncomfortable need for popular affirmation. It’s one that comes with some risks: Turnout is harder to predict during an epidemic and some people who respond to massive voting drives may not fall back into political apathy afterward.

Putin kicked off the year with the ambitious constitutional overhaul. The list of amendments is long. There is a greater presidential role in removing judges, an effective ban on same-sex marriage and an explicit mention of Russians’ belief in God. Plus there are guarantees around social benefits, including pensions. Most important is the provision that resets the presidential term tally to zero, giving Putin the opportunity to stay at the helm longer than Joseph Stalin.

The pandemic put that all on hold and left Putin, uninterested in the nitty gritty of managing a public health crisis, isolated, his approval ratings falling. Hit by the nation’s lockdown and crashing oil prices, the economy foundered. Proceeding with the vote, which starts on Thursday and will culminate on July 1, is an effort to wrest back control of the political agenda.

Elections in authoritarian states are often dismissed as meaningless theater. Not so for Russia, where Putin relies on just such public displays for direct endorsement, providing cover for even brazen power grabs. Success is not straightforward, though.

For this vote to confer the sought-after legitimacy, Putin needs not only a healthy majority, but a hefty turnout. At the very least, it must improve on the 1993 vote for the current constitution, when then-leader Boris Yeltsin dragged a disillusioned electorate to a participation rate of just below 55 percent, with roughly 58 percent voting in favor (although the numbers were disputed). More telling will be whether the new vote matches or beats the 67.5 percent turnout for the 2018 presidential election, when Putin won 77 percent of votes cast. Anything below that could be read as a drop in support.

How to achieve the desired turnout? One way is to move fast, as the Kremlin has, lest household finances deteriorate further. Then, provide some spectacle. Wednesday’s rescheduled Victory Day celebrations are a tried-and-tested appeal to nationalism and nostalgia with the core constituency at home, matching Putin’s efforts to recast Russia’s perceived role in World War II for the international crowd. Once voting kicks off, there will be prize draws as incentives. In a national address on Tuesday, Putin, whose government has held purse strings tight through the coronavirus crisis, announced extra handouts for families with children and the unemployed, along with higher taxes for top earners.

There are more questionable methods too. The government’s information campaign has focused on family values and patriotism, with vague slogans and a scant mention of Putin’s potentially extended rule. Opposition voices have had no tribune. Voters have to decide on the package of amendments as a whole, eliminating the chance any single measure could be rejected.

There are also concerns that staggering the voting over a week to reduce contagion risk could make it harder to monitor, alongside other measures such as social distancing, and online and home voting. There are already reports of teachers, civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises under pressure to vote early. To be clear, widespread, overt fraud is unlikely, after such allegations in 2011 and 2012 led to Russia’s most sustained demonstrations to date. As Nikolay Petrov of Chatham House points out, an outcome no one trusts serves no purpose for Putin.

If Putin does get the numbers he needs, as is widely expected, the ballot could still store up problems for later. The reliance on plebiscites is inherently contradictory. In order to achieve the high turnout necessary for the vote to confer real legitimacy, the population has to be incited into action. But, as Greg Yudin of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics explains, the Kremlin doesn’t want voters to remain mobilized afterward. While a return to complacency may be likely with older voters, who are often more dependent on state media, there’s no guarantee younger, more dissatisfied citizens will stand down. And with each poll, the rallying call gets louder.

Clara Ferreira Marques
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. -- Ed.