After two decades in power, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are at an all-time low as Russia’s economy reels under the impact of the coronavirus epidemic and the slump in oil prices. What better time for him to seek to extend his presidency for potentially 16 more years?
It’s a measure of how tightly Putin has controlled the operation to amend Russia’s constitution that there’s little suspense about the result of a referendum on the changes, despite the economic pain
unleashed by the virus. Approval in the vote that concludes July 1 will allow him to seek two more six-year terms after his present one ends in 2024, staying in power until 2036, when he’d be 83.
Still, amid rising public discontent, officials are pulling out all the stops to ensure a high turnout in a vote Putin wasn’t obliged to call. While a simple majority in favour and a turnout exceeding 50% of eligible voters is all that’s required, the Kremlin won’t be happy with anything less than an overwhelming endorsement. It’s sought to woo Russians with populist sweeteners.
“People are disenchanted with the ‘presidential republic’ and iron fist they believed in 20 years ago,” said Sergei Belanovsky, a Moscow sociologist who helped to produce polling that predicted the biggest protests of Putin’s rule in 2011-2012 and is now tracking a renewed increase in negative attitudes towards the leadership of the country.
Putin caught even many in his inner circle by surprise in January when he announced plans to carry out the most extensive reform of the constitution since it was adopted in 1993.
But the clause allowing him to sidestep term limits didn’t appear until March, even if many officials later suspected that had been his plan all along.
Putin is already the longest-serving leader of the world’s largest country by landmass since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. After a 2018 backlash over a pension-age increase, the former KGB colonel has found it harder to maintain public support as falling living standards stir increased resentment.
His popularity rating at 59% — though still respectable by western standards — is the lowest since he became president in 2000, and has fallen to the level of regional governors whom Putin routinely used to out-poll, according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow.