What had seemed a formality then now looks a harder sell. Like millions around the world, Russians were thrust into hardship and uncertainty about their jobs after Putin in late March ordered a nationwide lockdown that sparked a 33 per cent plunge in economic activity in the country.
“Putin is in a real hurry to get the constitutional reform through,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant to the Kremlin. “He wants to get it done as quickly as possible.”
While there are signs the COVID-19 epidemic is starting to wane in Russia, which has the world’s second-highest number of infections, the turmoil unleashed by the virus and an unprecedented slump in oil prices continues to rip through the economy. As regional officials gradually ease lockdown restrictions, the Kremlin remains wary of a potential second wave of coronavirus cases in the northern fall.
That’s all driving pressure for Putin to call the referendum for either late June or early July, the people said. Officials fear it’s too risky to delay the vote until September or later because public discontent may be at a peak by then, they said.
It took less than a week for parliament and the Constitutional Court to rubber-stamp the changes endorsed by Putin in March that allow him to seek two more six-year terms after his current presidency ends in 2024.
However, he made the amendments conditional on public approval in a referendum, effectively handing voters a veto that Putin’s opponents may now seek to exploit as his popularity slides in opinion polls.
“They’ve thought about cancelling the vote, but it’s too late,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.
Even state-run pollsters say only about half of Russians support the plan.
Putin has opted to introduce electronic voting, approved by the lower house of parliament last week, to ensure that millions of state employees casting their ballots via a government portal will back the constitutional changes out of concern their votes won’t be anonymous, said two people close to the Russian leader.
The use of electronic ballots means election observers will have far less ability to detect fraud, said Grigory Melkonyants, co-head of the Golos vote-monitoring group.
Holding the referendum as soon as possible after the stay-at-home restrictions are lifted may benefit from people feeling a short-lived sense of relief before the scale of their financial troubles sinks in, said one person close to the Kremlin.
The Central Electoral Commission late Thursday took the first steps to restart preparations for holding the referendum. It will need 20 to 30 days to prepare once Putin has set the date for the vote, the Interfax news service reported, citing CEC Secretary Maya Grishina.
“For the authorities of course it’s convenient to use this moment when people are busy with life and death matters,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies the elite at the State University of Management in Moscow. “When the COVID-19 problem fades away, everyone’s anger will be directed against the government.”