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GP Insights # 380, 4 July 2020
The era of strongmen politics now stands strongly consolidated as Russia votes in favour of the constitutional reforms, thereby allowing Vladimir Putin to nominally seek and secure office for two more terms till 2036. With these new changes, Putin is likely to surpass Joseph Stalin as the longest-serving head of the state. Along with allowing Putin to run for Presidency for two more six-year terms, the Russians in a week-long referendum overwhelmingly upheld the set of constitutional amendments like anti-gay rights and economic reforms. After the public voting, preliminary results released by the Election Commission showed that almost 78 per cent of voters endorsed the amendments, while 21 per cent voted against them and some 65 per cent voters had turned up to cast their ballots.
What is the background?
First, the culmination of Putin's pursuit for legacy amid opposition. The Russian Constitution bars more than two consecutive presidential terms. Since 2000 when Putin became the President for the first time, he started his pursuits to remain in power. After his first two presidential term he has swapped the Presidency with Dmitry Medvedv and remained the centre of power as a Prime Minister. After Medvedv stepped down in completing one term, Putin assumed his Presidency again. He is now into his second term that is set to expire in 2024. With an aim to be in power for life, Putin brought about the new constitutional changes that theoretically doesn't change the two-term limit but in practice resets the clock on Putin's terms so that after his term ends he can start afresh. Putin's desire to run again is not public yet, but if he chooses to run for Presidency, his political clout will let him remain in hegemony till 2036 when he will be 83 years old.
Second, the domestic show of Putin's power amid Coronavirus mishandling. The moment when Putin had announced his intention to reset the presidential term limits, it was never in doubt that Russian public voting will make any difference. Hence this referendum was aimed at driving home a political purpose. It was aimed at a domestic audience who was fast losing its faith on a President who has mishandled the pandemic, led to the suicides of doctors, reduced political freedoms, high standard of living and degraded the rule of law. Putin's amendments did not secure a majority support in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two largest cities with a strong middle-class opposition to 'Putinism.' Rather this urban political discontent was balanced by the support for Putin from the suburban town and rural areas. Kremlin's campaign made a point of directing the attention of these Russians to the promises of an expanded social security net contained in some constitutional amendments.
What does it mean?
First, with a likely scenario of Putin as the eternal President, the domestic political landscape looks at a strongman politics that is here to stay. It also marks a continuation of a global trend that of rubber stamp exercise of extending the rule of strong leaders as single seats of power. In 2018, the National People's Congress amended the Chinese constitution to remove a two-term cap on the Presidency allowing Xi Jinping to remain President forever thereby returning to the world the era of Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao.
Second, this likely Presidency will not be devoid of challenges. Putin faces global criticism on his leadership and global strategic footprints. From its alleged role in Afghanistan, Libya to the fights in Syria, the position of Putin as a deep-seated proxy leader has been criticized heavily. Russia's relation with West Europe has also come under the scanner for its role in expanding its energy footprint beyond the Baltic. Within the domestic audience, the disconnect between the polity and the public demands will be a challenge for Putin to address. Just like the post-Soviet Russia, these constitutional amendments create an illusion of a modernized, law-based state, but it is as detached from Russian reality as was the 1993 constitution of the then Soviet life.