Vladimir Putin has been at the forefront of the Russian political scene for the past 20 years. The recent plebiscite to reform the constitution, which ended on July 1st, would allow him to serve as a president until 2036, when he will be 84. In the end, predictably, he won, with nearly 78% in favour of the reforms; the Kremlin declared it a “triumph,” and President Putin thanked the Russian public, adding that they were “improving the political system.” Opposition figures promptly denounced this vote as “not legitimate,” stating that it was “a rigged, mocked procedure.” Alexei Navalny, a prominent Kremlin critic described the results as a “big lie.” With inadequate monitoring and transparency, it has failed to reflect the true sentiment of the people. Consent was manufactured in a number of ways.
Over the past week (the duration of the voting), the media and state TV coverage played a direct role in airing state propaganda, facilitating the success of the referendum. Heavily skewed in favour of the reforms, it also purposefully withheld from broadcasting the focal point of the referendum; that of allowing President Putin to run again for president in 2024 and beyond, if he so wishes. Instead, every other reform was highlighted – some 200 reforms from social welfare to enshrining a patriotic education. The camouflaging of the central aspect of this referendum (and the main reason this vote was happening) was done to ensure everyone found something to support, and ultimately vote in favour of the constitutional changes. After all, the ballot paper was only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote: you either support the whole package, or you don’t.
With elections made more tenuous with the spread of the coronavirus, the authorities ensured every measure possible was taken to make it a safe process. As a result, the election period was spread over a week, instead of a typical day, and people were able to vote from home and even online in some cities. Under such procedures, however, and with no independent scrutiny, the monitoring of the election became precarious, vulnerable to vote rigging, fraud and manipulation.
A similar mechanism working in favour of the Kremlin is observed in the Russian electoral system as a whole. Despite Putin’s desire to portray the system as a democratic one, the Russian government is an autocracy, and the electoral system is only nominally democratic. It is biased, fraudulent and manipulative. Opposition candidates and parties face severe restrictions and are often prevented from even registering. Election campaigns are manipulated by the state (which controls the vast majority of media outlets), and public demonstrations or assemblies organised by opposition parties are banned. These mechanisms prevent any potential opposition to run against the president or his party United Russia. Disguised as democratic, it fails to present the public a credible alternative.
Additionally, freedom of speech is undermined. Journalists and mass media consistently face sanctions and intimidation. Russia’s political leadership has enjoyed greater political power in the name of ‘stability’ at the expense of civil and human rights. Minority and LGBTQ+ communities are consistently harassed and discriminated against.
Any attempt to voice concerns and denounce the undemocratic structures of the establishment is met with repression, and many politically engaged NGOs have been forced onto a “foreign agents” list, which subjects them to the highest level of state scrutiny and prevents them from working efficiently. International organisations, such as UNICEF and the UN Agency for International Development have been asked to leave altogether.
The rule of law is hollowed, checks and balances among the executive are void, and legislative and judicial branches with division of power exists only de jure. In Russia’s system, the president de facto controls the parliament, and no law can be passed without prior approval from him. With Vladimir Putin’s tightening grip over the country, increasing centralised power, and deployment of force to supress any form of opposition, there is little room for a scenario which does not play in his favour.
In this context of an authoritarian, repressive regime, it comes as little surprise that President Putin managed to secure this victory.
Image: Коля Саныч via Flickr