On April 22, Russians were supposed to vote on a constitutional referendum proposed by President Vladimir Putin in his address to the Federal Assembly in January. But the Covid-19 pandemic meant the poll had to be postponed. Though the new date of voting was fixed for July 1, officials have announced that polling would begin a week early to prevent overcrowding at the polling stations. Meanwhile, critics, including Opposition activist Alexei Navalny, have accused Putin of political manipulation that would allow him to effectively rule for life.
What is this vote about?
In his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin proposed substantial amendments to Russia’s constitution for which he suggested holding a nation-wide constitutional referendum. In January, Putin formally submitted the proposed bill to the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, that approved this proposal in March. Days later, the Constitutional Court of Russia also gave its approval to the proposed bill.
The proposed amendments included clauses that the heads of law enforcement agencies in Russia must be appointed by the president in consultation with the Federation Council and that the upper house of Russia’s Parliament would be able to propose the dismissal of federal judges and that in specific cases, the Federation Council would have the right to remove judges of the Constitutional and Supreme courts following proposals by the Russian president.
The proposed amendments would ban gay marriage. Most importantly, however, it would allow Putin to occupy the highest office in the country post 2024, when his term is set to expire, till at least 2036. The president is now 67 years old. Other proposed amendments include provisions for the Russian constitution to take over international law. Individuals occupying high government positions, including those in the judiciary would not be allowed to have foreign citizenship or residency. A presidential candidate would have to have lived in Russia for at least 25 years and cannot ever have held foreign citizenship or residency.
Some economic changes that were proposed include, making the minimum wage not lower than the subsistence minimum and making adjustments to the state pension in accordance with inflation.
The government had announced that in this referendum, individuals holding Russian citizenship in eastern Ukraine will also be permitted to vote.
What do Putin’s critics say?
Critics believe that although Putin may have thought that these amendments would clear any potential obstacles for his rule over Russia beyond 2024, the process may not be as straightforward. Putin himself has indicated that he does not have plans of staying in office beyond his term.
Although the proposals have already been accepted in both houses in Russia’s parliament and legally no referendum is required to enforce these amendments to the Russia’s Constitution, Putin had said that a referendum was being held to give it legitimacy.
According to news reports, criticism of these proposals had been quickly shot down by government authorities. Observers do not believe that Putin will face challenges in the passing of these amendments. These moves, they say, are perhaps an indication that Putin plans on continuing to exert influence over the government after his tenure, but from the sidelines.
How has COVID-19 impacted this referendum?
After initially postponing this referendum due to surging cases of coronavirus infections, days before the start of the voting process, Putin hailed what he called Russia’s achievements in tackling the outbreak of coronavirus. This past week, Russia also held a two-day-long commemoration of the 75th Victory Day Parade that critics say was organised despite a ban on large gatherings due to COVID-19.
Russia has some of the highest cases of coronavirus infections in the world, after countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil, but critics believe that official numbers of related infections and deaths are much higher than those being reported. Critics believe that holding a nation-wide referendum during a pandemic would unnecessarily put the lives of people at risk.
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