Vladimir Putin’s name does not feature on ballot papers for the nationwide vote to approve his proposed changes to the Russian constitution, and the fanfare around the poll has largely avoided mentioning a provision that could let him remain president until 2036.
But as Russians prepare to cast their votes on Wednesday, the final and main day of a seven-day ballot, its importance to the Kremlin is in little doubt.
Posters and mass text messages promise Muscovites “a million prizes” through raffles in exchange for voting. Teachers, doctors and municipal employees have complained the state is putting pressure on them to vote. Large state companies are reportedly offering their own prizes for doing so via QR codes that could be used to track people at polling stations.
In an address to the nation broadcast on state television on Tuesday, Mr Putin said the ballot was part of an “unbreakable, thousand-year historical path” and likened it to the notoriously bloody battle of Rzhev in the second world war in which millions of Soviet soldiers died.
“We are voting for the country we want to live in, with modern education and healthcare, reliable social support and a government that is efficient and answerable to society,” he said.
“We are voting for the country for whose sake we are working and which we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren.”
The planned constitutional changes include guarantees of social payments plus a range of amendments aimed at satisfying nationalist sentiment and luring voters. These include bans on gay marriage and on giving away Russia’s territory; enshrining Russian as the “language of the state-forming ethnic group”; and a ban on “belittling the significance of the people’s triumph in defending the Fatherland” during the second world war.
But neither Mr Putin in his address, nor official campaign material, have drawn much attention to a clause that would reset the clock on the maximum two consecutive presidential terms presently allowed. If passed, this would potentially allow Mr Putin to run for president twice more once his current six-year term ends in 2024.
The nationalist amendments are “a fusion of fragments of Soviet propaganda clichés and quasi-patriotic banalities” aimed at driving up turnout, Andrei Kolesnikov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow foundation, wrote in a column on its website. “Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology,” he said.
Mr Putin announced the changes as part of a surprise government revamp in January and rushed them through parliament. The public ballot on the proposals was originally scheduled for April but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The overhaul came after Mr Putin’s approval ratings hit record lows amid anger at six consecutive years of stagnant living standards.
Since then, Mr Putin’s popularity has fallen further as anger grows over the Kremlin’s patchy handling of the Covid-19 crisis and its modest economic rescue package. The president’s 59 per cent approval rating from independent pollster Levada is his lowest in 20 years, while a survey by state polling group Vtsiom in April showed only 28 per cent of Russians “trust” him, the lowest rating on record.
“Putin didn’t make the [constitutional] changes because he thinks society is disgruntled with his policies but because he wanted to reset the clock and the system, to leave a legacy,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of independent political analyst R. Politik.
“But the Kremlin doesn’t understand the depth of the problems in society. People are tired because they want a different view of the future and what plan there is for the country, and the Kremlin can’t offer them one.”
With discontent high, the Kremlin launched a blizzard of measures that analysts have suggested were aimed at boosting the public mood.
Despite a daily rise in coronavirus cases still in excess of 6,000, officials rapidly relaxed restrictions aimed at curbing the outbreak in the run-up to last week’s annual parade celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory in the second world war.
In a leaked video published by news site Znak this week, labour minister Maxim Topilin urged local pension officials to process coronavirus relief payments for families on time so they would receive them on the day of the vote. “I don’t think I need to tell you why,” Mr Topilin said. “You know what’s happening on the first [of July].”
The ministry denied trying to manipulate public opinion, saying Mr Topilin’s decision was based on a “technical algorithm”.
Exit polls after a week of early voting held to ensure social distancing at ballot boxes, published by Vtsiom, showed 76 per cent supported Mr Putin’s changes.
Some 45 per cent had already voted in person by Tuesday, while 93 per cent of those eligible to vote online had done so, according to Russia’s election commission.
To limit the spread of coronavirus, many officials set up impromptu polling stations at outdoor locations, including the trunk of a car, a football pitch, a parked bus and children’s playgrounds. Critics have claimed this could lead to voting irregularities.
A monitor for election watchdog Golos, a reporter for independent news channel TV Rain and a Russian citizen in Israel said they had been able to vote more than once. The election commission said it would cancel any extra votes and vowed to punish offenders.
The rush to hold the vote despite the pandemic highlighted the Kremlin’s worries that Mr Putin’s popularity could sink further, Ms Stanovaya said.
“They’re too scared to do it in September or October, never mind December, because who knows what’ll be happening by then,” she said. “The sooner you do it, the less headache and risk there is.”