Kremlin claims ‘unambiguous triumph’ in referendum allowing Putin to rule until 2036

Vote was marred by allegations of mass rigging

Oliver Carroll
Thursday 02 July 2020 11:49 BST
Putin votes in referendum on changing constitution

The Kremlin has claimed an “unambiguous triumph” in its constitutional vote that paves the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.

Speaking with journalists on Thursday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed the “yes” vote amounted to a “triumphal referendum of trust” in the president.

“It was easy to predict the great interest given the way the constitutional amendments were formulated,” he said. “But no one could predict the highest of turnouts and support.”

With all votes counted, authorities claimed a 77.92 per cent to 21.27 per cent victory on a turn out of 67.97 per cent. The “yes” vote was even greater than the 76.7 per cent secured by the president at the last elections.

The results apparently exceeded the Kremlin’s own predictions, with reports suggesting internal targets aimed for a turnout above 55 per cent, and yes vote above 60 per cent. Just one of 85 subjects – the Nenets Autonomous Okrug‚ in Russia’s far north – registered a “no” result.

But the vote was marred with evidence of vote rigging and unfair process. Opposition groups claimed their own exit polls showed the reverse result.

According to the Nyet! movement, 54.9 per cent of voters voted against (official numbers: 34 per cent). The difference was even starker in St Petersburg, Russia’s northern capital, with 63.07 per cent projected as no-voters versus the official figure of 21.63 per cent.)

The Golos election monitoring group, which registered more than 1500 reports of manipulations in a week of voting, described the process as an “attack on the sovereignty of the people”. The so-called plebiscite was no more than a “PR act”, the organisation claimed, “designed not to reflect the will of the nation, but to create an impression of that will that best suits the authorities.”

Russia is, of course, well versed in the practice of dark election arts. But alongside these dark practices, a whole ecosystem of effective unofficial monitoring has emerged.

The statistician Sergei Shpilkin has traditionally played a leading role in these efforts, dissecting publicly available data in all kinds of imaginative ways to look for evidence of irregularities.

A member of election commission checks the temperature of a voter
A member of election commission checks the temperature of a voter (AP)

Speaking to The Independent on Thursday, Mr Shpilkin said modelling the numbers left him in no doubt the vote was the “most falsified nationwide election” in Russia’s post-Soviet history. According to the maths, he says, at least 22 million of the 74 million recorded ballots were suspicious.

Graphs consistently showed an obvious cluster skew in favour of “yes” voting in areas with above average turnouts. This would be entirely consistent with ballot boxes being stuffed, or individual polling results being arbitrarily fixed on a directive from above.

National republics, dominated by authoritarian local leaders keen to please the Kremlin, as expected, returned implausibly high results. In the case of Chechnya, for example, 97.92 per cent supposedly voted for on a turnout of 95 per cent.

But there were strange figures coming from the usually more circumspect regions like Volgograd (83 per cent for on turnout of 80 per cent) and Moscow region (79 per cent for a turnout of 76 per cent).

“The level of fabrication is some way ahead of any nationwide election we have seen,” Mr Shpilkin said. “Using the same methodology, you find something in the range of 14-15 million stolen votes during the discredited Duma elections of 2011.”

The vote was not a referendum in any strict sense. It was presented as an “all-nation vote” and conducted in a legally grey area that some argue was geared to ambiguity.

Polling was stretched over an unprecedented seven days, and advanced home voting was allowed without the need to prove a valid reason. Independent party observers were not allowed at polling stations. Agitation for or against was not allowed.

The Kremlin insisted the measures were introduced to ensure safe voting, but critics believe the aim was boosting support for their proposals.

On the day of polling, election authorities shocked observers by publishing “preliminary” results a full five hours before voting ended.

As remarkable was the absence of Vladimir Putin or any mention of his term limits from the electoral campaign. Official election literature and state media concentrated on 205 of the 206 proposed amendments – these promised everything from increased pensions and improved healthcare to traditional family values and good governance. The one key clause proposing allowing the president to continue in power routinely ignored.

Konstantin Kalachyov, a leading Russian political analyst, said the president still retained the backing of “a majority” of Russians. But the Kremlin’s over-exuberance in securing high numbers was likely to create problems down the line.

“The issue isn’t the numbers they’ve presented but the promises of fairness and good living they made,” he said.

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