Why Vladimir Putin’s ‘presidency for life’ may prove more short-lived

Russians have voted to extend their leader’s term but experts say his grip on power is slipping

Vladimir Putin
Russians have voted to extend their leader’s term but experts say his grip on power is slipping
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin appears set to remain in power until 2036 after winning a controversial vote to amend Russia’s Constitution and reset presidential term limits.

But with both oil prices and his approval ratings falling, the Russian leader’s “job for life” may not be as safe as it seems.

What has happened?

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The president thanked Russian voters for their “support and trust” on Thursday after election officials confirmed that almost 78% of voters had backed a raft of constitutional amendments - including one that will reset presidential term limits, allowing Putin to run again in 2024 and 2030.

Turnout for the vote exceeded 64%, according to the authorities.

“The result of the vote shows that the vast majority of citizens believe that we can work better. And the so-called expanded government - from municipalities to the president - is obliged to do everything it can to justify the high confidence placed in it by the people,” Putin said in an address on state-run TV channel Rossiya 1.

But Kremlin critics have challenged both the turnout figure and the final result, arguing that “the numbers alone show they are false, with an unrealistic approval rating for the Russian leader amid wide frustration in the country over declining living standards”, says fact-checking website Snopes.

“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.”

So is Putin’s job now safe?

Despite the outcome of the vote, analysts say that Putin’s position is far from secure.

Falling living standards are an issue for the Russian president, especially since “the base of support for Putinism is concentrated among financially hard-pressed Russians living in cities, towns and rural areas far less glamorous than Moscow and St Petersburg”, the Financial Times says.

“Millions have fallen into hardship since the decline of sky-high oil prices that raised living standards in the president’s first decade in office,” the newspaper adds.

The Kremlin attempted to mollify these voters by drawing attention to provisions within the constitutional amendment that would expand the social security net.

But according to the BBC, “the continuing Covid-19 crisis is unlikely to improve things” for Putin. The president “has rarely shone in crisis management”, agrees The Guardian, “and this one appears no different”.

Part of the problem for Putin is that his support base relies heavily on older people - the demographic who are likely to be hardest hit by Covid-19. And people who “gain experience of the deficiencies of Russia’s medical system fundamentally revise their view of the political system - and attitudes toward Putin”, says Foreign Policy.

Amid growing dissatisfaction over his response to the pandemic, the president is facing challenges from both sides of the political divide. “One comes from forward-thinking and liberal residents of large cities, the other from depressive and impoverished provinces,” political commentator Kirill Rogov wrote on Facebook.

Although Putin won this week’s vote by a comfortable margin, “there are signs of cracks in the solid backing he once enjoyed”, adds The Washington Post.

If he did remain in the Kremlin for another two terms, Putin would be the longest-serving Russian leader since Peter the Great, the czar who led the Russian empire for 43 years until his death in 1725.

But such an outcome is far from assured. Some analysts have compared the extension of Putin’s presidency to the 1977 signing of Article Six of the Soviet Constitution, which enshrined the Communist Party’s status as the ruling and only political party, but also triggered mass demonstrations against the regime.

“We are now at a crossroads,” says political analyst Rogov. “There are countries like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan where societies have accepted a limitless presidency. Russian society is unlikely to react the same way.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.