Opposition groups cast doubt on projection of overwhelming support for amendments that would allow Putin to stay in power past 2024
But the decision by Russia’s election commission to publish “preliminary” live results five hours before polling closed was a novelty that shocked even the most cynical of observers.
The initial projection of 73 per cent in favour of amendments was broadly in line with exit polls published by state pollsters FOM and VTsIOM. They projected 70 per cent and 76 per cent respectively, also before the end of polling.
Opposition groups painted an altogether different picture. At 5.30pm local time (3.30pm GMT), their own exit polls projected a near tie in Moscow (47.76 per cent for, 52.24 against) and a heavy defeat for the president in his home city of St Petersburg (38.2 percent for, 61.8 per cent against).
The constitutional plebiscite was an unusual electoral exercise for Russia, with polling stretched over seven days and in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic. Authorities said the unprecedented measure was necessary to ensure safe voting.
For critics, it was a trick to boost turnout from a population tired of their longtime leader.
The vote is taking place in a tricky period for Mr Putin, who has lost much of his glow after a torrid few months of largely absent Covid-19 crisis management. According to Levada Centre, Russia’s most independent pollster, Mr Putin is still trusted by 59 per cent of Russians, but that figure is down 30 per cent from a post-Crimea high of three years ago.
In open polling, ie when Russians are asked to name the politicians they most trust themselves, support drops to 29 per cent. The figure is lowest among young voters, with less than one in 10 expressing affiliation.✕
This week’s ballot asked for a “yes” or “no” answer to 206 amendments in entirety, with the proposal to reset term limits buried deep amongst them. It was “technically impossible” to ask voters to go through the changes one by one, authorities claimed.
Invariably, official campaign literature focused on the other 205 amendments, targeting populist pressure points from marriage as a heterosexual union, to indexation guarantees for pensions and other social benefits. In his address to the nation on Tuesday, Mr Putin made no mention of the all-important clause on term limits.
On their part, officials claimed the vote to be Russia’s cleanest yet. Deputy elections chief Nikolai Bulayev talked about a “breakthrough” in the low number of complaints received.
Mr Putin said that election manipulation methods such as forced voting, “rounding errors” in counting and inflating turnout were “inadmissible”. But there was evidence of all methods being rolled out – and more.
On Thursday, the first day of voting, Pavel Lobkov, a journalist for the independent Dozhd television channel, reported he had managed to vote twice. He was later questioned by police for his efforts, with prosecutors now threatening criminal charges for “election fraud”.
A week earlier, a colleague from the same channel was taken in for questioning after he uncovered a corrupt scheme to register elderly voters for electronic voting. Some of the most egregious manipulations during the week were recorded in the northern capital of St Petersburg.
There, election officials were recorded by local journalists stuffing papers into the ballot box. At another polling station, an election observer claimed officials refused to give him access to voting numbers.
When journalist David Frenkel followed up on these claims a day later, he was seriously assaulted by a police officer and another unidentified man. He ended up in hospital with a broken shoulder bone.
The election monitoring group Golos reported a total of 1,500 separate infringements during the seven-day vote. Ella Pamfilova, Mr Bulayev’s boss at the election commission, dismissed the claims, and Golos as a “toxic and degraded” organisation.
Ilya Azar, the journalist who has become an unexpected alternative protest figurehead, has announced a protest for 6pm local time (4pm BST) in Pushkin Square. He was responding to a “coup d’etat”, he said in a Facebook post. But in an open admission of the impossibility of protesting in Russia, he said he would not be openly encouraging others to join him.
“Let every man decide for himself,” he said. “They should know 20,000 rouble [£230] fines and 30-day jail terms are very likely.”