Putin’s Referendum: Where are the numbers?

We all know that President Vladimir Putin’s referendum on amendments to the Russian Constitution held on July 1st gave him an overwhelming victory.  That is what the Russia’s Central Electoral Commission officially announced on Friday and it has been picked up by all media in Russia and in the West even well before, just after the voting booths were shut on Wednesday night based on exit poll data.

So far, critics of the Referendum in the West have directed their attention to two issues only.  One of these, advanced by the long-established and authoritative Chatham House think tank in Britain tells us that the Referendum was illegal, illegitimate from the get-go, that it violated the procedures set down in the existing Constitution of 1993 and that it was superfluous since the amendments had already been approved by both chambers of the legislature.

The other critics, meaning the vast majority of our mainstream media, have kicked the tires, saying there was surely ballot stuffing and other hanky-panky which render the Referendum results fraudulent. To be sure, this is speculation unsupported by any facts and merely spreading the malicious anti-Putin gossip of opposition politicians within Russia. Moreover, the likelihood of illegal abuses at the local level such as famously occurred in the 2011 Duma elections was very low given all the technical investments in security at voting booths made in the time since.  These same advances include not merely live broadcast of cameras in the voting stations onto the internet for public access but also widespread use of sophisticated autonomous ballot boxes that read each vote before sending them into plexiglass boxes for storage in case a manual recount is demanded; and that technology incidentally makes it possible to have an instantaneous read-out of the results as soon as the polling station shuts.

However, it is striking that no one has asked: where are the numbers?  Elections are all about numbers and the results published by the Russian authorities this time break entirely with the practices of a couple of decades of national elections in the country.  In past nationwide elections, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta carried on the next day a full breakdown of voting results for each “subject of the Russian Federation,” meaning cities and regions (the Russian equivalent of states).

Now you may ask, why bother with such a breakdown when the given vote on July 1st was essentially a plebiscite.  But the same could be said of Russia’s presidential elections, and yet the region by region numbers were always released. Surely this transparency in the past was intended to validate the credibility of the results and to provide political scientists with a future crop of dissertations and food for thought.


This time the officials have given us only three summary numbers. These are 67.97% participation in the Referendum by eligible voters; 77.92% votes in favor of the amendments; and 21.27% votes against. Doing the arithmetic, this tells us that 52.9% of the eligible voters approved the amendments and Mr. Putin has the support of the absolute majority that he sought. Victory!

In response, I say:  not so fast.  There are fragmentary electoral results for the regions that have been sprinkled in the Russian print and online media and which suggest that voting results differed significantly across all three parameters. These discrepancies raise questions about how the absolute majority was reached.  It is worth mentioning here that even the results by region have kept apart the release of results of voter turnout and results of yes-no on the amendments.  Only when you put these together can you understand whether a majority of eligible voters approved the amendments in any given region.  This does not change the overall conclusion that in every region except one (the Nenets autonomous region in the Far North), the voters who participated in the election approved the amendment by a majority. But it does raise the question of shortfall in the President’s objective of getting an absolute majority of the polity on board for the amendments.

Sixty-eight percent participation may be very high by European and world voting patterns, but it is still far from 100% and one can wonder why 32% stayed at home. Were they ‘no’ voters who were afraid to come out of the closet?  Were they abstainers? This is the meat of political science and we have been put on a diet by the Russian authorities.

First off, from the fragmentary published numbers on voter turnout by region, we see that some of the ‘usual suspects’ have outperformed on delivering the vote. These tend to be places like Dagestan or the Caucasus republics and the Crimea (81% turnout) which are especially beholden to Moscow for their welfare and prosperity. In other regions, particularly the remote Far Eastern regions, where loyalty to Moscow has at times been questionable in past elections, we see particularly low turnout:  Magadan (44%), Khabarovsk (44%). Almost the same comes up in Siberia: Novosibirsk (Russia’s third largest city, 47%), Tomsk (44%). This information came courtesy of the RBK news agency. As for major cities of European Russia, Leningrad Oblast (which abuts the city of St Petersburg) had voter turnout of 78%, ten points above the national average; but then it is the home to many military training bases and specialized schools turning out officers. And by definition military men are easiest to send off to voting booths, even easier than civilian employees of the government.

Turning to the “no” votes, on the day after the election yandex.ru told us that in Magadan they numbered 36% of voters, in Irkutsk – 34.84%, in Kamchatka – 37.16% and in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk – 29.55.

In many of the regions mentioned above it is obvious that the goal of 50% plus of eligible voters supporting the amendments was never achieved.

But what about the capital, Moscow?  Here, information on electoral results has been very peculiarly reported.  The Rossiiskaya Gazeta did tell us that the electronic balloting in Moscow, which was one of only two cities in the country allowed to experiment with such voting, produced 62.33%  of ballots in favor of the amendments, 37.67% against. Meanwhile, in the traditional voting booths the result in Moscow was 65.26% in favor and 30.84% against. Information on voter turnout was not provided but if it corresponded to the national average that would yield a net vote of 44% of eligible voters supporting Mr. Putin’s Referendum.

And what about Russians living abroad?  As we know the Russian passport-carrying diaspora numbers several million. The only information about their voting that I have seen was provided by the news portal Lenta.ru.  They said that the balloting of Russian at their consulates in New York, in Berlin and in Vienna all produced majorities of No votes. No further information was provided. This is significant, because unlike those living in Russia, these expats were likely uninterested in the social benefits enshrined in the amendments but were moved by the one amendment allowing Putin to stay in power after his present mandate expires in 2024. We may construe their vote to be based on more abstract principles of governance than personal welfare.

And now I direct attention elsewhere, to the 21% of participating voters who voted against the reform nationwide.  Who were they?  None of our media has given a thought to that question.  I will hazard a guess, that they were heeding the advice of the one Opposition party in the Duma that called for a No vote:  the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

The 20% corresponds roughly to the electoral strength of the CPRF over the past decade or so, as the second largest party in the country after United Russia. About two weeks before the elections got under way, Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was asked by a journalist of Russian state television what he would be advising his followers to do.  Without hesitation, Zyuganov said to vote against the amendments. And he went on to say that if the Referendum passed, then Putin would enjoy powers greater than the pharaohs! Given the vast promotional campaign going on in favor of the Referendum, including television spots by tv celebrities, musicians, artists and scientists, this open rejection of the Referendum by Zyuganov was very courageous.  Not that it won him any plaudits from our media for defending democracy.

I close this essay with the observation that Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Referendum is in any case illusory. It attests to his inability over 20 years in power to provide a secure succession when he passes from the scene.

His first presentation of the project to amend the Russian Constitution back on January 15 was based on the notion of rebalancing the share of responsibility and power between the three branches of government, Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. His words were pointed in the direction of a cabinet responsible to the legislature, not to the head of state. By cutting back on presidential powers, he would have made it easier to find a worthy successor to fill shoes smaller than he had worn.  This all was subsequently jettisoned before the reform was presented to the Russian electorate for approval.

Yes, in principle Mr. Putin can now stand for re-election in 2024 and in 2030. However, as the old folk saying has it:  Man proposes and God disposes.  There are no assurances that Mr. Putin will stay in good health and good mental acuity into his seventies and eighties. And if he should leave the scene abruptly, for one reason or another, there is presently after these Constitutional amendments no clear path of succession that would give the country the stability that Mr. Putin places above all in his value system


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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2 thoughts on “Putin’s Referendum: Where are the numbers?

  1. Could you point to a western ‘democracy’ that provides an example of what it is you are so committed to as ‘democracy,’ and explain why that example is (in a non-question begging sense) ‘a really good thing’? And then explain why Russia doesn’t have such a good democracy? The concept is not clearly spelt out, nor what is spelt justified as an ideal mode of political rule. This makes your analysis here look occasionally as if driven by pique at the electoral result.


  2. Zyuganov’s courageous response notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine that a representative assembly like the Duma will be able to resist persistent efforts by the West to undermine nationalism and “sell Russia out”. Pressures ranging from bribes to lobbyists will be brought to bear on the most malleable deputies. There’s no substitute for a principled leader, and Russia has been fortunate to have had one. However, it does remain to be seen whether 20-25 years is long enough to inculcate a national ethic in its political class strong enough to resist the waves of foreign NGO’s beating on Russia’s shores.


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