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Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Russia’s authorities pull out all the stops to mobilize for a delayed plebiscite that could extend Putin’s presidency to 2036

Source: Meduza
Central Election Commission of Russia / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Over the next few weeks, the Russian authorities will have their hands full. The nation is simultaneously withdrawing coronavirus quarantine restrictions and preparing to hold a plebiscite on July 1 to vote on constitutional amendments that could extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency to 2036. Judging by the scale of efforts by election officials, the Kremlin seeks a sweeping victory in the vote. Russians can expect all manner of enticements and inducements to participate: state employees are being compelled to mobilize their friends and family, skeptics are being lured with smartphones and apartments awarded at trivia quizzes, and every voter is being promised a goody bag with coveted sanitary supplies.

Tactics tried-and-true 

Going to the polls to vote means joining large crowds, which betrays the advice public officials repeated all spring. Those PSAs got through to a lot of people; a high-ranking member of United Russia (the country’s ruling political party) told Meduza that only 20 percent of eligible voters say they’re ready to set foot in a polling station. Russia’s great plebiscite — the not-quite-a-referendum to extend the Putin presidency’s expiration date to 2036 — has lost its momentum.

Despite this reluctance to brave the elements, the Kremlin reportedly still seeks a high turnout on July 1. Before the pandemic, officials talked about 70 percent turnout. Meduza’s sources say the target is now slightly less ambitious: a national average of 55 percent. 

To mobilize so many reluctant voters, Russia’s authorities are turning to a lot of the same tactics they used to deliver Vladimir Putin his most recent re-election in 2018. In February, for example, the Kremlin advised regional election officials to hold farmers’ markets and children’s book fairs at polling stations to attract more voters. Political strategist Grigory Kazankov is responsible for these efforts. Kazankov is credited with turning out large numbers of employees at major enterprises across the country in the last presidential election. One of his most successful tactics involved coupling ballot votes with surveys on urban improvement projects.

In Russia’s Primorsky Territory, for example, plebiscite voters will also have the opportunity to participate in a survey to determine what local landmarks are created or renovated in a new 300-million-ruble ($4.4-million) beautification initiative. In Volgograd, voters will weigh in simultaneously on Russia’s constitutional amendments and whether or not to revoke a controversial time-zone shift implemented two years ago.

Election lotteries

Don’t feel like coming to the polls on July 1? Stay home and you’ll miss your shot at the grand prize. That’s how officials hope to attract voters in the Krasnoyarsk Territory, where they’re raffling off 10 apartments, 10 cars, and 50 smartphones. Contestants need to report in person to booths set up near polling stations and answer quiz questions related to Russia’s Constitution. 

The contest’s website doesn’t make this clear, but the initiative is sponsored by the local branch of the “Association of Lawyers of Russia,” which is affiliated with Governor Alexander Uss and municipal deputies from United Russia. The association’s local chairperson is Svetlana Zylevich, one of the lawyers who helped draft the first edition of the constitutional amendments now at stake in the plebiscite. She says the prizes are funded by entrepreneurs without the involvement of the state or any “politicians.”

Several regions across Russia are reportedly considering similar lotteries and other local officials are now busy searching for their own philanthropic, Constitution-enthusiasts. These raffles have a good track record when it comes to boosting turnout. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, an election day lottery helped raise turnout in Tyumen to 84 percent.

Election officials also plan to hand out all kinds of gifts to people who show up at polling stations, even if they don’t participate in lotteries. The authorities have already started procuring special badges, hats, windbreakers, passport cases, thermal mugs, refrigerator magnets, and other souvenirs. 

Even before the pandemic, the Putin administration encouraged regional officials to imbue election day with a festive atmosphere. The Kremlin reportedly stressed this approach in a February seminar for lieutenant governors on raising turnout. Expectations have fallen slightly because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the turnout goal is still high. Election officials are even making arrangements to accommodate potentially infected voters: everyone arriving at polling stations will get a temperature check, and feverish individuals will be taken aside and given first aid. They’ll also be granted access to a separate area where they can cast a ballot.

Under pressure

Employees at several institutions tell journalists that they’ve been ordered to register for online voting at portals like the Moscow mayor’s official website, Individuals who refuse have been threatened with termination.

Some public servants say they’ve had to promise to register between three and 10 friends and relatives, as well, in order to create pools of voters who can easily cast ballots on the day of the plebiscite. In Ryazan, state employees say they’ve even been asked for their immediate relatives’ contact information.

Here come the “volunteers”

To reach voters who can’t be tempted with prizes or compelled through their employers, Russian election officials are also fielding an army of paid “volunteers” to go door-to-door. In Novosibirsk, the regional government is paying people about $145 to visit 250 apartments each before election day on July 1. 

Back in late February, Russia’s Central Election Commission signed an agreement with the Association of Volunteer Centers to mobilize 100,000 volunteers across the country “to help Russians make sense of these amendments” and explain “what will change in their lives” if they’re passed. 

According to Novaya Gazeta, the association has received increasingly large federal subsidies since 2016 (reaching 357 million rubles, or $5.2 million, in 2020 alone). Meanwhile, election monitors at the “Golos” movement have questioned the association’s political neutrality. In fact, the website for the association’s volunteer project doesn’t even conceal the organization’s support for the constitutional amendments, meaning that Russian election officials are essentially collaborating with lobbyists.

Story by Liliya Yapparova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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