MOSCOW (AP) — A vote that cleared the way for President Vladimir Putin to rule Russia until 2036 was denounced Thursday by his political opponents as a “Pyrrhic victory” that will only further erode his support and legitimacy.
Putin himself thanked voters for their “support and trust,” and repeated a message that was often a hallmark of his presidential campaigns.
“We need internal stability and time for the reinforcing of the country, of all of its institutions,” the 67-year-old Putin said in a televised statement.
According to election officials, nearly 78% of voters approved the constitutional amendments in seven days of balloting that concluded Wednesday. Turnout across the vast country was put at almost 68%.
The amendment that allows Putin to run for two more six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024 were part of a package of constitutional changes that also outlaw same-sex marriage, mention “a belief in God as a core value” and emphasize the primacy of Russian law over international norms. Voters could not decide on the individual amendments but only on the entire group.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the results were “a triumphant referendum on trust in President Putin.”
Putin's critics argued the results were rigged and didn't reflect the dwindling enthusiasm for the once-popular president.
“A record in falsifying votes has been set in Russia,” opposition politician Alexei Navalny said in a Facebook post. “The announced result has nothing whatsoever to do with the people's opinion.”
Putin's approval rating was at 59% in May, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster. The lowest in two decades, the numbers have been steadily going down in the past five years amid growing frustration over declining living standards.
Critics pointed to widespread reports of pressure on voters and other irregularities, as well as a lack of transparency and independent control of the balloting that they said tarnished its validity.
“Putin is weaker because it took so much effort, and unlawful effort at that, to get this vote,” said Masha Lipman, an independent political analyst.
For the first time in Russia, polls were kept open for an entire week, with ballot boxes unattended at night. Independent monitoring was hindered by bureaucratic hurdles and coronavirus-related restrictions. Voting also took place outside polling stations — in some instances on street benches, tree stumps and in the trunks of cars — as well as online in some places, including Moscow.
Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Kremlin speechwriter, said in a Facebook post that the victory cost the government “a serious dent in its legitimacy.”
Opposition politicians argued it was hardly a win for the Kremlin.
“Did Putin impress us with the scale of the people’s love (for him)? No, he just made a fool of himself,” said Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker and now an opposition leader, in a Facebook post. “Did he get the mandate from the people to reign forever? No, he just angered many by pressuring them to vote and started a rumor mill that will tell many people about this Pyrrhic victory.”
Golos, Russia’s top independent election monitoring group, deemed the results “falsified.”
Gudkov pointed to independent exit polls that reported over 54% of more than 5,000 respondents in Moscow and 63% of nearly 3,000 respondents in St. Petersburg voted against the amendments.
A nationwide poll by Levada over the weekend showed that 68% of those who had cast their ballot by Saturday voted “yes,” and 54% of those who hadn’t would approve the amendments. The clause about resetting term limits for Putin, however, was only supported by 51% of the respondents.
Yulia Galyamina, one of the founders of the “No!” campaign, said in a Facebook post that people across Russia, even those who don't support any opposition group, voted against the amendments.
"People said their ‘no’. And the authorities had to resort to unprecedented falsification, undermining the legitimacy of the president,” she said.
In his blog, Navalny said Putin has “showed his inadequacy” in the 20 years he has ruled Russia.
“Everything (he does) is built on promises and lies. Around half of the people in the country understand that,” Navalny wrote. “So every day, you should do something to advocate against this regime.”
He urged his supporters to focus on regional elections in September and fight against candidates from the ruling United Russia party in 31 Russian regions. Ending the dominance of United Russia in regional parliaments and administrations will undermine “the formal mechanism” of Putin’s rule, Navalny said.
“It is a real fight in which a real victory is possible,” he added.
Lipman agreed that discontent exists in Russia, but it is unlikely to lead to unrest or any kind of drastic action right now.
“The mood is there. But from the mood and from grumbling and complaining, there’s a long way to action,” she said, adding that Putin is unlikely to lose his power any time soon.
“Putin is weaker, but still the strongest, by far the most powerful man in the country,” Lipman said. “He is still in charge.”
That attitude was reflected in a statement Tuesday by Ramzan Kadyrov, the powerful leader of the southern republic of Chechnya, who suggested that Putin should be president for life.
“Who can replace him today?" Kadyrov said. "There is no political leader on that scale globally.”
Anna Frants contributed.