Russia's election chief denies claims of poll violations, Putin consolidates long-term rule

The path is clear for Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain at the helm until 2036, by which time he will be 84 years old. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Russia's election chief has denied allegations of serious violations in the conduct of a nationwide referendum which overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments that will give Russian President Vladimir Putin the option of remaining in power until well into the next decade.

Mrs Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia's Central Electoral Commission, dismissed opposition allegations that state-owned corporations illegally encouraged their employees to take part in the referendum, or that some voters cast their ballots more than once.

"We only know of four cases where the results of the vote may be questioned," Mrs Pamfilova told a press conference in Moscow, "and this number is negligible compared to the total number of polling stations."

But top opposition leader Alexei Navalny dismissed the referendum as "fake and a huge lie", claiming that the outcome of the ballot "has nothing to do with the opinion of Russian citizens".

The week-long referendum ended late on Wednesday night and all the votes have now been counted: the constitutional amendments were approved by just over 78 per cent of the Russian electorate, with around two-thirds of those entitled to vote casting their ballots.

There was never any doubt as to the outcome of the referendum since some of the 200 amendments to various articles of the Russian Constitution - which dates to the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed - were deliberately designed to boost popular support.

This much is true of new provisions proclaiming Russia's "faith in God" and the ban on same-sex marriages, both of which play well with a socially conservative electorate; but it is equally applicable to new constitutional clauses guaranteeing a minimum wage and mandating a regular yearly increase in state pensions, which is of critical importance to an ageing Russian population that includes large numbers of pensioners living in abject poverty.

So although some dubious electoral practices were noticed, such as the Russian military reporting a statistically improbable 99.8 per cent of armed forces personnel casting a vote in the referendum and a countrywide turnout that was secured by prize offerings ranging from gift certificates for cars to supermarket vouchers, it is still likely that the final outcome broadly represents the opinion of the Russian electorate's majority.

Indeed, the authorities were so confident of the result that copies of the revised Constitution were printed and put on sale in retail outlets days before the votes were fully counted.

Yet the central theme of the constitutional revision is the removal of a provision which limited the number of terms a Russian president can serve, thereby allowing Mr Putin, whose current term ends in 2024, to run for the presidency again.

In theory, therefore, the Russian leader - who has already stayed in power for just over two decades - could contest two additional elections for presidential terms of six years each, and remain at the helm until 2036, by which time Mr Putin would be 84 years old.

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But despite this provision which clearly strengthens his control over the country, the president is keen to keep everyone guessing about his future intentions; other changes introduced by the constitutional amendments now approved are designed to strengthen the powers of the Russian parliament over the president, thereby hinting that Mr Putin is not planning to stick around forever.

The amendments also give extra powers to the so-called State Council, a supervisory body which is supposed to be above parliament, but which until now has been largely toothless.

The safest bet would be that the latest constitutional changes were put in place in order to offer President Putin a variety of future options, from choosing to stay in power to retiring to a seat in the revamped State Council, from which to arbitrate Russia's future political life.

Either way, the referendum has not deflected most Russians from their immediate problems, most notably the sagging economy because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although infection rates have gone down, they are still unacceptably high, at over 6,000 per day. Around 10,000 Russians have died since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The economy has taken a serious hit. In statistics published on Wednesday (July 1), Russia's Ministry of Economy predicts a contraction of at least 5 per cent this year and admits that recovery can only be expected by 2022.

At the same time, oil prices - which represent the bulk of Russia's exports - are depressed, meaning that the country has little chance of balancing its budget.

As a result, Mr Putin's popularity has sunk to an all time low.

But, like almost everything else in Russia, this is a relative concept. For even now, President Putin enjoys a 60 per cent popularity rating, the sort of figure other leaders around the world can only dream of.

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