Russian lawmakers have passed a bill to allow Russians to vote by post or online for President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power until 2036.
Putin caught observers out in January by agreeing to a stage-managed “spontaneous” suggestion that the two-term limit on a president’s term in office be waived in his case.
The Russian constitution limits a president to two terms in office. Putin has already dodged the limit once by standing down in 2008 and allowing Dmitry Medvedev to take over as president for one term, with Putin taking up the role of Prime Minister for four years. Having reset the clock Putin returned as president in 2012 for another two terms. His current term in office runs to 2024, but now he can stay until 2036.
Analysts are divided on whether Putin will actually make use of the extension. But the change negates one of Putin’s main political problems during his current term: as 2024 approaches a struggle for succession would have broken out amongst the elites to manoeuvre their preferred candidate into place, making Putin increasingly a lame duck in his last years in office. Now that he can stay on after 2024 he will retain his full power until the end of that period.
The constitution referendum is the keystone in this plan and was slated to happen on April 22. However, the Kremlin reluctantly delayed the vote after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Russia rapidly gathered momentum. The danger now is that the vote on the constitution will turn into a de facto referendum on Putin’s performance in tackling the pandemic.
Putin has tried to insulate himself from a possible disaster – Russia is now the third-worst off country in the world in terms of the number of infections – by delegating responsibility to the regional governors, but by abdicating responsibility he has also lost the trust of the people, who generally see him as a tough and effective leader. Putin’s approval and trust ratings have dived to a two-decade low in recent polls.
The new bill enacted on May 13 was passed in all three readings simultaneously and allows for a postal vote to be held while the country remains on lockdown, which will last until at least the end of May in most regions.
The Central Elections Commission also has to sign off on the changes to make them valid.
“If we don’t pass this bill, we need to face the fact that in September many citizens will not be able to go to the polling stations because they will be obligated to comply with social-distancing rules,” the Mediazona news website quoted State Duma deputy Dmitry Vyatkin as saying.