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July 13, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8839

Russia's Vote On The Constitutional Amendments – A Putin Triumph, An Electoral Fraud, Or A Step Towards A More Balanced Political System?

July 13, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8839

The voting in Russia on the constitutional amendments to what is now being referred as the "president's constitution". concluded on July 1, 2020 after voters had been able to cast their ballot electronically or in person over an entire week. According to the official results, nearly 78% of the voters were in favor of the amendments out of a voter turnout of 67.97%[1]  The official results announced by the Central Election Commission (CEC) drew diverse reactions. Putin's camp showed elation. It was a "triumph" and a "vote of confidence in Putin" said Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who claimed that the vote had proceeded without scandals and with minimal violations.[2] This appraisal was contested by Putin's opponents who claimed that the results had been achieved by fraud. Opposition activist Alexei Navalny tweeted: "It is incredibly enraging how the CEC and [its chairman Ella] Pamfilova are deliberately trying to show that don't give a damn about the law. They orchestrated a fake voting, and publicly announce its results, although at that moment in the parts of Russia where 85% of the population resides the voting precincts were still working. They should face a court trial." [3] A third opinion believed that the official results were valid, but that the respectable showing by the opposition ushered in a new and perhaps more positive era in Russian politics

Below is a sampling of reactions to the elections.:


Ballot boxes being opened (Source: Rtvi.com)

The Official Results Accurately Reflected Popular Sentiment

The popular Tolkovatel Telegram channel claimed that the authorities had astutely sprinkled social benefit amendments and the overriding issue in Russia was the social issue. The opposition had also shot itself in the foot by failing to decide whether to boycott the vote or participate and vote no. If the entire opposition had voted no, it could have secured a virtual tie in Moscow: " In general, the majority voted in favor of the new constitution... The forecasts of Sergey Belanovsky and other sociologists on the growth of the protest wave did not come true...

"Two factors have played a role in that. The first was the social support measures (increased child support and unemployment benefits... Many were pleased, especially outside big cities, where even 10 thousand rubles is real money.


This pro-amendments poster reads: Annual indexation of pensions (Source: Vedemosti.ru)

The second was the lifting of the quarantine measures. (...) The third was the "social" block of the amendments to the Constitution.

"The opposition (both systemic and non-systemic) failed to reach the voters... They did not have a single plan of action. For example, Navalny, Yabloko, [former Yekaterinaburg mayor Yevgeny] Roizman and a significant part of the 'Internet' intelligentsia called for a boycott of the voting. The Communist Party, [Maxim] Katz, Khodorkovsky and others planned to vote 'against'... As a result, both strategies have failed.[4]

Political analyst Anna Fedorova commented on the high turnout of the voting: "The main reason for the high turnout is that the issues that were put to the vote are really important for people. Voters came to the polls because they want to be heard on these issues. The Constitution is the fundamental document for the country, so the high turnout is not surprising. It should be so."

"Observers, including those from opposition organizations, recorded only a small number of minor violations. There were no gross violations, that could cast doubt on the results" – added Fedorova.[5]

Dmitry Drize a featured columnist for Kommersant wrote in an article titled "The Authorities Got the Result that They Needed" that the strategy of packing all the amendments together was a winning one. Every person found an amendment that appealed to him. A pensioner got annual indexation of pensions. Those who believed in the family as the country's spiritual backbone received an amendment postulating that "there would be no 'parent 1' or 'parent 2', but [a family meant] only a man and a woman." Moderate reformers got some semblance of parliamentary oversight etc. And since the government is also part of society it inserted some amendments on its own behalf.

The government also gave the people a sense of involvement in a major event the ratification of a constitution. Additionally, the government was still benefitting from the impression that it had restored Russia's position as a great power. "There is such a thing as an appeal to consciousness. The process itself is important here - the country has reached a new level. We have passed through the stages of a long journey, and you, the deep nation, are a direct participant. You are part of the important process of rising from your knees. Yes, 'Crimea is ours' constitutes a unifying idea. We are no longer humiliated and insulted, we are a power, and this is enshrined in the basic law. The 90s are defeated. In other words, you do not need to see only the notorious resetting [of Putin's presidential terms] to zero- look at the broader picture: we are doing everything for you, we are trying."


Amendment backers appeal to patriotism in a campaign billboard that reads "We will defend our ancestors' memory (Source: Rbc.ru)

Drize also criticizes the lack of a unified opposition plan: "Some critics might say that the state used administrative resources but if people everywhere are against, similar tactics will not work...The opponents of the amendments conducted a difficult and prolonged battle with each other...as a result the authorities got the result they wanted."[6]

Political analyst Sergei Mikheyev claimed that what interested the voters was survival and they voted in favor of amendments pushing other considerations aside" Do you call this [voting behavior a] lack of enlightenment? This is the deep wisdom that allows Russia to survive. When some personal resentments, inconveniences, and sometimes even abuse and crimes of power fade into the background when survival is at stake".[7]

Critics Of The Voting: The Fix Was In From The Beginning

Regime opponents were far from convinced that fair elections had been conducted, and claimed that the authorities had set themselves goals for both turnout and percentage in favor of the amendments and then manipulated the vote to get the desired results.

Political scientist Fedor Krasheninnikov argued that the election was a sham: "We were informed in advance that the turnout would be about 70% and the votes 'for' the amendments will amount to 70%. These predefined numbers are now being drawn up [by election commissions] ... It was not a genuine vote, but an imitation of it ..."[8]

Alexander Kynev, another political scientist, claimed that the regime won thanks to its ability to impose fear on certain voters:

"Cities no longer want to support the current government... Authority in Russia is based purely on coercion - this is the main result of the vote. (...) The group most loyal to Putin is comprised of those who succumb to state pressure... those who fear losing their jobs."

Although he did not believe these were fair elections, Kynev still criticizes the boycott of the voting advocated by Navalny: "The result of the protest vote in the cities shows the defeat of Navalny's plan, for the first time in many years he made a gross political mistake. "[9]

Prominent physicist Sergei Shpilkin, who specializes in vote analysis claimed that he had discovered evidence proving that the June 25-July 1 plebiscite had been tainted.

Shpilkin's graphs of 88 million votes show shares of :"yes" votes approaching 100% in precincts that reported similarly abnormally high turnouts. Shpilkin's estimate is that up to 22 million votes may have been cast fraudulently. He concluded: "There was no manipulation of votes in Russia's elections on this scale in the recent past. In absolute terms, this is an unprecedented case."[10]

Shpilkin believed the actual vote approximated the following: The real turnout, apparently, was about 44%, and the percentage of votes for the amendments was about 65%. Thus, the number of voters who voted for the amendments was approximately 29% of all Russian voters, or about 31 million people.


Sergey Shpilkin (Source: Newtimes.ru)

Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky accepted Shpilkin's figures as authoritative and claimed that they did not bode well for Putin: I think that this is the beginning of another era. It was important for Putin to acquire a tool to cow his inner circle, so that they would not snoop with their eyes [in search of a successor]. He did not get it. He demonstrated that almost half of the country does not support him. He has big problems."[11]

Liberal politician Boris Gudkov writing in Echo of Moscow claimed that Putin had lost in reality despite an election deck stacked in his favor "He lost under conditions when he banned campaigning against constitutional amendments. He lost, despite disguising his 'reset to zero'" with a veneer of minor amendments. He lost, despite the titanic efforts of the entire propaganda apparatus and huge financial resources thrown "into battle" in support of his life-long rule! Today we already know how the Kremlin's result was "forged" by crooks from the election commissions: according to official figures, 83.6% (!) (58.5 out of 70 million) of the citizens who allegedly took part in the vote voted 'ahead of schedule', i.e. beyond ALL CONTROL [emphasis original] and independent monitoring. Our fraudulent electoral system has never had such favorable opportunities for total fraud."[12]

A Third Approach: Putin Won But His Opponents Can Also Draw Encouragement From The Results

In contrast to the approaches that celebrated Putin's triumph or decried the vote as a fraud, a third approach claimed that Putin's victory was genuine but not a total knockout and therefore the regime would hitherto have to consider the positions of its opponents.

Political scientist Alexei Makarkin believes the results were genuine as the authorities had successfully mobilized administrative resources. However, the opposition as well could take comfort in the results "The entire campaign that accompanied this vote carried a message that the people are 'for' the amendments, and only a few marginals are opposed to them. Suddenly it turns out that the situation is not so simple."[13]

Mk.ru's observer [featured columnist] Mikhail Rostovsky authored an extensive analysis in this vein that is reproduced below in full. Perhaps Rostovsky was influenced by the fact that Mk.ru is read by both sides, but he essentially requested the opposition to respect the vote and take solace in the fact that they had proven themselves a serious force. He also opined that despite the new constitution allowing Putin to continue in office till the age of 83, he was now further convinced that Putin would not exercise this option. Rostovsky wrote:

"Putin and the new version of the Constitution that he promoted have definitely won. But by the same token the opponents of the new version of the Basic Law did not lose unequivocally. The voting results, which ended on July 1, were a rare example of political balance. The level of support that received power is quite sufficient to maintain governance in the state. But it is likewise impossible to say that the government has received an absolute mandate.

"A political split within a country is usually a bad thing. However, sometimes the existence in society of two opposing opinions that enjoy wide enough support, can, on the contrary, play a stabilizing role. When deciding on resetting Putin's presidential terms to zero, Russia adopted a Solomonic decision — the best that is possible in this situation. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is required to work with both those who voted for it and those who voted against.

"The most dangerous official outcome for the country's future would be the Central Asian version where the level of support for the new version of the Constitution stood at 100% of the vote. Some national republics of Russia exhibited results closely approximating this 'standard of success': Chechnya - 97.92% (who would doubt it), Tuva - 96.79.

"But such results do not seem very typical even against the background of other national regions with well-developed traditions of 'respect for the bosses': Bashkiria - 88.68%, Mordovia 85.60%.

"And such indicators seem completely atypical against the background of the authorities' results in other territories. Moscow: 65.29% in favor and 33.98% against. Kamchatka: 61.76% in favor and 37.16% against. Arkhangelsk region: 65.78% for and 33.98% and against. Magadan: 62.03% in favor and 36.62% against.

"There was even a region in Russia in which the draft Constitution was defeated by an absolute majority. The Nenets Autonomous Okrug found itself in this unusual role in which no new version of the Basic Law exists. 55.25% of the voters who participated in the vote said.

"What do such results attest to regarding the country's will? [Namely]that there exist two competing visions of Russia's future that are supported by society. Here is how, even before the vote, they were described on social networks by the VTsIOM General Director Valery Fedorov: 'Those in favor of the amendments view them as guarantees for continuing Putin's patriotic and social policies. And that suits them perfectly. They support it. And resetting to zero for some of them is not that important, but for the other part it is even a positive, because it reinforces guarantees of a constant course. Those who are against saw the resetting [of Putin's terms] as negative- because they do not want to continue living under Putin, who [even] today does not suit them.

"Of course, the balance of power between those who are for and those who are opposed is obviously uneven. But the one fifth part of the population who said no to the revision of the Constitution is not 'a bunch of social misfits'. Yes, this is a minority. But not an overwhelming minority. This is a very significant part of the population, whose presence the authorities simply cannot ignore.

"Is the formation of this significant minority the first step towards the emergence of a truly competitive policy in Russia? I really want to, but, unfortunately, I cannot answer this question in the affirmative.

"A traditional problem for Russian opponents of the government is their inability to unite around a single candidate. At the vote on the draft Constitution, they did not have such a problem. The candidate "I am against amendments" united both Communists , Navalny supporters, and all others who do not support Putin. However, already during the next election exam for the authorities - a single voting day in September - the political game will again be conducted according to the usual rules.

"But I still believe my point is accurate: the presence of a significant political minority in the country can have a positive impact on our public life. It is a given that those who favor change and those who back stability are usually opposed. But an alternative view of the situation is possible: they not only oppose, but they also complement each other.

"Continuous changes, without a steering wheel and rudder, are a sure road to chaos. Absolute stability without change is synonymous with hopeless stagnation. How do these general considerations apply to Russian politics in applied terms? I think that's how. Theoretically, a new version of the Constitution gives Vladimir Putin the right to remain in office as president until 2036. I did not believe in the fact that this will be so even before the popular vote. Now I do not believe it even more so.

"Voting results for the authorities are not the pep talks from the hoary Soviet joke: 'We are ready to carry out any task of any party and any government!' Voting results for the authorities show quite a significant level of available support, however, with an entire series of conditions. Like, we trust you, Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], of course, but ...

"Perhaps I am engaging in wishful thinking. But, if you were to choose from a whole set of other realistic options, I think this situation is optimal for the country. In a situation where COVID-19 plunged the world into a crisis, and an easy way out of it is not yet visible, Russia vitally needs a strong and self-confident power. But at the same time, the government should not feel itself eternal and omnipotent; it should not assume that citizens would happily consider rubberstamping any decision. It seems to me that the results of the popular vote on amendments to the Constitution send to those who are now at Russia's helm a similar mixed and ambiguous signal.

"Commenting on the results of voting on social networks, the famous Russian journalist Ekaterina Vinokurova addressed everyone with a passionate appeal: 'All in all, it is unnecessary to declare those who think differently enemies. There is no need to insist that [everyone must] join unified ranks on one side of the barricades.' That is eloquently put. An attempt to put everyone into a single line, has on more than one occasion pushed Russia onto a dead end path of development. The majority must respect the opinion of the minority, and the minority - the position of the majority.

"The resetting of Putin's presidential terms to zero has occurred. However, this was done during a popular vote, the results of which, on the whole, appear to fully approximate reality. Russia is divided into those who like to reset Putin's presidential terms to zero and those who are uncomfortable with this. But the country still has a working institution of elections – albeit imperfect, albeit with failures . This institution should remain a universal method for resolving the issue of power and resolving political differences in Russia. Despite the limited effectiveness of this method in our specific Russian conditions, others are still worse.[14]


Mikhail Rostovsky (Source: Mk.ru)

 

[1] Tass.ru, July 2, 2020.

[2] Tvrain.ru, July 2, 2020.

[3] Twitter.com/navalny/, July 1, 2020.

[4] T.me/tolk_tolk, July 2, 2020,

[5] Vz.ru, July 1, 2020.

[6] Kommersant.ru, July 2, 2020.

[7] Tvk6.ru, July 5, 2020.

[8] Novayagazeta.ru, July 1, 2020.

[9] Novayagazeta.ru, July 1, 2020.

[10] Themoscowtimes.com, July 3, 2020.

[11] Tvk6.ru, July 5, 2020.

[12] Echo.msk.ru, July 5, 2020.

[13] Tvk6.ru, July 5, 2020.

[14] Mk.ru, July 2, 2020.

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