Image Credit: President of Russia
Earlier this year, President Putin was left without a cabinet. He made the shock announcement that introduced numerous constitutional changes, including allowing him to run for two additional 6 year terms once his current tenure was up in 2024. Prime Minister Mendevev and his government were informed of the alterations at the same time as the public; during a State of the Nation speech to parliament, and therefore felt forced to resign. For a country whose politics are defined by maintaining the status quo, this was the ultimate ironic shake up. In an attempt to stabilise his future leadership role in the country, the security of the present government was thrown into question.
The plans for the referendum, where the public would vote on these changes, were put on hold while the nation battled the Coronavirus outbreak. However, the date has now been set for 1 July as officials confirm the country is past the worst. Russian news agencies reported Putin stated in an interview last weekend that if the vote enables him to do so, he now hopes to run for another term as President. He continued to express how this was for the benefit of the country, as politicians’ focus should not be on working, rather than searching for a successor.
In an interview with Interfax news agency, he explained that if he makes the decision not to run again, then the search for a candidate will be an unwelcome distraction for the nation and will shift attention away from the daily issues, both foreign and domestic, the country faces. With the proposed changes wiping Putin’s presidential tally from two to zero, he could continue to lead the country and prevent what he sees as an unnecessary disruption.
Despite the public set to head to the polls in the coming days, there have been reports that some of the nation’s bookstores are already stocking printed copies of the new constitution, and are available for purchase. Moscow correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and former New York Times writer, Matthew Luxmoore, posted on his Twitter account that he was able to pick up a copy in a store on Tverskaya street in Moscow for less than 50 dollar cents. He replied to his post with a picture of page 28 of the copy that includes the clause that allows Putin to “reset his presidential terms and run for two more 6 year terms”. It seems natural, he concluded, that citizens were confused about the purpose of the vote when the outcome of an updated constitution, meaning a success for Putin, is already being printed in books. The vote was appearing increasingly like a technicality, rather than an exercise of democracy.
Back in January, Putin’s opposition called his actions a “constitutional coup” that would simply allow him to hold the reigns of the country until 2036. Unsurprisingly, their sentiments remain unchanged and it is widely anticipated that this vote will bring about these changes. Having already had victories in parliament and the Constitutional Court, the Russian people’s verdict presents as the third and final obstacle before the change’s implementation.
This obstacle does not create a fierce challenge, with Reuters and Al Jazeera English anticipating the vote will end in Putin’s favour. Simultaneously, the President’s approval ratings tell an intriguing story. Last month, CNBC reported that Putin’s approval rating was down to 59%, having fallen from 68% in January and 69% in February. For some leaders, 59% is not a catastrophic statistic. However, considering that Putin’s approval numbers have sat rather comfortably in the mid 80s for the last three years, this drop was certainly a shock.
Pollsters have put this drop partly down to the change in methodology with Coronavirus removing the possibility of face to face surveys, with telephone interviews being used instead. Others argue that a mishandling of the outbreak led to the sudden decrease, as the first week in May brought four consecutive days of over 10,000 new cases being reported. Despite these numbers, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman and top Kremlin official, told CNBC that they were optimistic and the President doesn't concern himself too much with his ratings. Putin’s mindset, he explained, was that if politicians allow themselves to become too nervous over these numbers, they act irresponsibly.
It remains unclear exactly how these changes will transform the Russian political system. In fact, it seems the alterations alternatively endeavour to keep things the way they have been for the last two decades. It is hard to envision a Russia that isn't captained by Putin. With analysts predicting the 1 July vote will pass the constitutional changes, in all likelihood the world won’t have to.