President Vladimir Putin has won a resounding victory in his bid to stay in power until the middle of the next decade, as Russians voted overwhelmingly to endorse the country's political status quo, according to preliminary results.
Russians went to the polls Wednesday to cast ballots in a nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments. The vote paves the way for Putin, who has ruled for two decades, to remain president until 2036.
Campaign literature made little mention of the real purpose of the referendum, framing it as a return to old-fashioned family values, designed to appeal to conservative voters.
"Our country, our constitution, our decision" was the slogan on the information bulletin explaining the constitutional reform to voters. The brochure spelled out a range of amendments, including a provision that defines marriage strictly as a "union of a man and a woman."
But the brochure glosses over one key point: The changes to the constitution effectively reset the clock on Putin's term limits, allowing him to seek two more six-year terms when his presidency ends in 2024.
It's little surprise, then, that the government has pushed a robust get-out-the-vote effort, with a very clear goal: ensuring the public gives a resounding endorsement to the constitutional change.
The preliminary results made that clear. Russia's Central Election Commission on Wednesday night released a tally after processing 50% of ballots, saying 76.24% of the citizens who voted supported the amendments.
Earlier, in a departure from practice in presidential elections, the CEC released initial results on Twitter at around 3:00 pm Moscow time (8 a.m ET), five hours before polls closed in the capital. The statement gave no specifics about where those votes had been counted; polls at that point had already closed in Russia's Far East.
The Russian government opened early voting last week in what was officially described as a measure to encourage social distancing amid coronavirus, but critics have said the government has drawn out the vote and declared Wednesday a national holiday to encourage voter turnout.
In a statement Wednesday, CEC head Ella Pamfilova defended the process, saying, "For the entire voting period, serious violations that would have required Central Election Commission proceedings were not found."
The early results are reminiscent of the 2018 presidential election, when Putin won re-election in a landslide with three quarters of ballots cast. Then as now, Putin had the advantages of incumbency, plus a servile state media that allows for little open debate on domestic politics and a large state sector that encourages employees to cast votes for the status quo.
Putin's popularity is genuine, despite being dented during coronavirus lockdown. On the day before the vote, the Russian President appeared in a videotaped message in front of a stirring new monument to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II.
"They fought so that we could live in peace, work, love, create value and feel proud of Russia, a country with a unique civilization and a great culture that unites the destinies, hopes and aspirations of many generations of our forefathers," he said.
"We are going to vote for the country where we want to live, with cutting-edge education and healthcare, a reliable system of social protection and an effective government accountable to the people. We are going to vote for a country to the benefit of which we have been working and which we would like to pass on to our children and grandchildren."
Those may be pleasing sentiments, to be sure. But that doesn't mean the referendum sits well with all Russians, many of whom are tired of Putin's rule.
Russian opposition figure and prominent Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny dismissed the official results of the vote on constitutional amendments as "fake" and "a huge lie."
"Right now a huge number of people is frustrated by the result. I voted 'no,' everyone around voted 'no', and the result is a solid 'yes," Navalny wrote in a blogpost. "This has nothing to do with the opinion of Russian citizens."
"Putin lost this "vote" before it began. After all, he refused to hold a real referendum in accordance with all the rules and with observers present. Because he understood: if there are rules -- he will lose. He can only win where he draws numbers," Navalny added.
Independent organizations have cast doubt on the numbers and the referendum drew criticism from monitoring groups for lack of regulation.
A group of activists laid down in Red Square in the form of the numbers 2036, the independent Russian news channel TV Rain reported. Video posted by TV Rain correspondent Maria Borzunova showed the protesters lying down on the cobblestones in front of Lenin's Tomb.
TV Rain reported that the activists included Moscow municipal deputy Lucy Shteyn. The website OVD-Info, which monitors detentions, cited lawyers as saying those involved in the protest were detained and subsequently released without charge.
According to the group, 14 people were detained in Moscow, four in St. Petersburg, two in Nizhny Novgorod and one each in the cities of Novosibirsk, Blagoveshchensk, Khanty-Mansiysk and Penza.
Other Russians posted photos on social media from polling stations of ballots checked NYET (no). A few hundred people gathered for a small demonstration at Pushkin Square in central Moscow, a favorite rallying point for opposition protests. One demonstrator there held a sign that read: "Putin Forever?"
In a post on Instagram, Lola Nordic, a DJ and feminist activist from St. Petersburg, was blunt.
"Today I am voting against Putin's constitutional amendments which he created to be able to reign here for another 16 years," she wrote. "I am soooo f**king tired of this sh*t."
But the message of Wednesday's vote is clear: Putin is going nowhere. In a video posted on Telegram, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the Chechen Republic, said openly that Putin should be made "president for life."
For now, Putin's presidency looks likely to end in 2036, when he will turn 84.