With Russians overwhelmingly backing a set of constitutional amendments in a referendum, Vladimir Putin can potentially stay in power for two more six-year terms after his term expires in 2024. After a week-long vote came to an end on Wednesday, preliminary results released by the Election Commission showed that almost 78% of voters endorsed the amendments, while 21% voted against them. Some 65% voters had turned up to cast their ballots.
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In the vote, Russians were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the changes to the Constitution. The changes included a reorganisation of the government, introducing a higher minimum pension and wages, a ban on gay marriage, restricting top officials from holding dual citizenship, enshrining faith in God as a core value and emphasising the primacy of the Constitution over international treaties and rulings. The most controversial change, however, was underplayed by the Kremlin during the campaign resetting President Putins term limits.
The centre of power
The Russian Constitution bars more than two consecutive presidential terms. Mr. Putin, who became President for the first time in 2000, swapped the presidency with his confident Dmitry Medvedv after his first two terms. He remained the centre of power during this time as Prime Minister. Mr. Medvedv served one term and stepped aside for Mr. Putin to assume the presidency again. He is now into his second term of his second stint as President, which will expire in 2024. The new Constitution doesnt change the two-term limit in theory, but in practice, it resets the clock on Mr. Putins terms so that in the first election under the new Constitution, to be held in 2024, Mr. Putin can start afresh.
Mr. Putin has said he hasnt decided on running again. But if he chooses so, given the hegemony of his reign over Russias political landscape, he could remain in office for two more terms until 2036 when he will be 83 years old. The amendments have also enhanced the powers of the State Council, an advisory body until now, which Mr. Putin heads. Overall, the changes allows him tighten his grip over Russia.
In pursuit of legitimacy
The proposed changes had already been approved by Parliament and the Supreme Court. But the Kremlin chose to put it on vote for legitimacy and popular approval. Mr. Putin sold the amendments as necessary reforms for a stable and stronger Russia. The vote was originally planned for April but was delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Since April, the virus has spread fast in Russia. The country has recorded 6,60,230 COVID-19 infections so far, the third worst hit after the U.S. and Brazil. It has also seen over 9,600 virus-related deaths. But despite the outbreak, the Kremlin decided to go ahead with the vote this month may be because Mr. Putin wanted to get it done before the economic situation turns worse.
Now that the amendments got popular mandate, the ball is in Mr. Putins court. If he stays in power for two more terms, he will be the longest serving Russian leader since Peter the Great. The Tsar, who built the Russian Empire, was in power for 43 years until his death in 1725. While the constitutional impediments for Mr. Putins continued rule are now removed, the road ahead for him may not be smooth. It has never been smooth for Mr. Putin. He inherited a Russia that was in an economic free fall and strategic retreat in 2000 after the troublesome Boris Yeltsin years. Much of the support Mr. Putin enjoys now derives from his efforts to rebuild the state and economy and restore some of its global clout. After 20 years in power, Mr. Putin again faces daunting foreign policy and economic challenges.
According to the IMF, the economy hasnt expanded in dollar terms for a decade. The Fund estimates the GDP to shrink by 6.6% this year. With the pandemic affecting local businesses and the oil price fall eating into exports revenue, the Kremlin finds it difficult to fix the economy in the near term. In foreign policy, Russias relationship with the West remains troublesome. The sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 are still in place. While Russia managed to prevent the collapse of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad after its intervention in the civil war, the Syrian crisis is far from resolved. Worse, Russia faces allegations of interference in the elections of other countries. Domestically, Opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his supporters continue to protest against the Kremlin despite state crackdowns. Mr. Navalny, who was barred from contesting the last presidential election, has already rejected the referendum results, calling it a huge lie.
For Mr. Putin, theres a crucial difference between the challenges he faced in 2000 and now. Back then, he inherited a weak state and his job was to fix it. Now, he is the state that is facing a fresh set of challenges.