MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin secured his political future on Wednesday after a wide majority of voters supported a controversial national referendum that paved the way for the former KGB agent to stay in power until 2036.
The referendum proposed more than 200 constitutional amendments, one of which will see presidential term limits reset, allowing Putin to run for the job again in 2024 and in 2030 if he chooses.
Official results published by the Kremlin on Thursday, after 100 percent of ballots had been counted, showed that nearly 78 percent of voters had approved constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms after his current one ends in 2024.
The result was hailed as a "triumph" by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a senior figure inside the Kremlin.
"This was a triumphal referendum on confidence in president Putin," he said Thursday, adding that public enthusiasm for the ballot was a result of their engagement in formulating the amendments to the constitution.
Putin, who has been president for 20 years, made the case for constitutional revisions invoking patriotism and making a vague promise of securing Russia’s future.
The Kremlin had been keen to downplay the resetting of Putin’s length of office and so, more than 200 other issues were put to the public in the polls. But they amounted to little more than fine print on the ballot papers.
Much about the vote was irregular for a Russian election, beginning with online voting and a nearly weeklong opportunity for citizens to stop by polling stations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But apart from the staggered voting, the most novel aspect of Wednesday’s election was that early results were announced by the Central Election Commission well before polls had closed in many parts of the country.
Around midday in Moscow, results from the polls in Russia’s Far East (seven hours ahead of the Russian capital) were announced with just around 1 percent of the ballots counted.
Later in the afternoon, with still almost four hours left for voters in Moscow to cast their ballots, election officials announced that 73 percent of the voters supported the proposed amendments.
Russia’s Central Election Commission later explained these “real time” results as a means of adding transparency to the election process.
Putin first proposed a constitutional shake-up in January and the vote was originally scheduled for April 23. But the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Kremlin to alter its political plans for the year — delaying the referendum as Russia’s outbreak became the world’s second largest in May.
In late May, the Kremlin decided it had waited long enough and began to pressure local leaders to lift COVID-19 lockdowns and pave the way for a nationwide referendum July 1.
The coronavirus has nonetheless continued to loom over the campaign for constitutional change.
At polling stations in Moscow on Wednesday, voters were issued masks and gloves upon entry. However, Putin was not seen wearing either as he voted at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Few doubted the amendments will pass, but in Russian elections a more telling statistic is the voter turnout, which the Kremlin sees as backing up claims that voting outcomes are a legitimate expression of popular will.
As a result, much effort was expended this year to get Russians out of their houses — where they’re still being cautioned by some authorities to shelter from COVID-19 — and vote for the proposed amendments.
The government has offered raffle prizes ranging from hair dryers to new apartments for those who make their way to the polls and in Moscow the city's government also ran a contest called “Million Prizes” that promised to give away almost $145 million in vouchers exchangeable for a variety of goods.
In both Moscow and the city of Nizhny Novgorod, the authorities also experimented with online voting. According to the Central Election Commission, 93 percent of the 1 million citizens who registered for online voting cast their ballots.
Putin's political opponents were quick to document irregularities.
The opposition leader Alexei Navalny's movement Anti-Corruption Foundation published a video showing one polling station had taken it upon itself to submit ballots on behalf of a family that had never voted before.
There was also a small protest in Moscow on Wednesday night.
The result does not set Putin’s future in stone. It does pave the way for him to possibly hold on to power until 2036 — giving him the opportunity to be Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Peter the Great.
But he will have to run two more presidential campaigns and if he chooses to do so, the question then will be how many people turn out to vote.