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by John Helmer, Moscow

Two weeks is not a long time in Russian politics. But it’s just enough for Kremlin deputy staff chief Sergei Kirienko to send the instruction to the Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova (lead image) that any turnout, big or small, for the national vote on constitutional amendments will be enough.  The 50% turnout required for the validation of the constitutional referendum in December 1993 has been abandoned.

Pamfilova announced in Moscow yesterday: “The individual who considers himself an active citizen, the one who believes that his opinion can and should influence certain decisions, takes part. Knowing our realities, the obligation to vote [Обязаловка] always gives the opposite result.” This is the strongest indication yet that the Kremlin is afraid that the national turnout for the vote, now confirmed for April 22, will be less than 50%.

On February 14 Pamfilova and Kirienko were asked five questions on the proposed national vote:

1. Is the proposed vote on the constitutional amendments a referendum under Russian law? What law applies to this vote?
2. In the arrangements for the proposed vote on the constitutional amendments, is there a minimum turnout threshold required for confirmation of the vote result?
3. What is the legally binding vote result for approval? A simple majority?
4. Is it possible for voters to vote against either Yes or No?
5. The December 12, 1993, constitutional referendum was held on a Sunday. What federal vote or election has been held on a week day (if any)?”. 

“We will answer when we are ready,” a spokesman for Pamfillova replied. Kirienko refused to answer. Read the full story here.  

Russian opinion pollsters are not agreed on the sentiment of voters towards the constitutional amendments and their consequent readiness to turn out for the vote.  The Levada Centre, which is independent of the government, conducted face-to-face interviews in mid-December. Then  the electorate was evenly divided, 47% to 47%, over whether the constitutional amendments amounted to a positive reform or a power grab. Click to read more.

The Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), which is state funded, conducted a nationwide poll of 1,600 voters by telephone on February 20.  The results were published on February 25, and are available on the Centre’s website in Russian.  

According to VTsIOM, 22% of Russians say they are undecided on whether they will vote; the highest concentration of these voters (38%) is in the 18 to 24 age group. Overall, 41% said they intend to vote, while another 25% said they are likely to do so.  Eleven percent said they are  likely or determined not to vote; 1% refused to say.  The polling agency interpreted these figures to mean: “more than half of Russians (66%) declare their possible vote on amendments to the Constitution, which will take place this spring, with 41% expressing an extreme degree of confidence in it.” Read the poll tabulations here.  

Source: https://wciom.ru/

Days after the poll results were known,  at a briefing reported by RBC on Thursday, Pamfilova was ready to answer less than half the questions asked of her earlier – two out of five. Read the RBC report here.

On the voter threshold question, Pamfilova avoided the point, emphasizing instead that the vote is an issue of individual freedom. “This should be a free expression of will,” she said. “The individual who considers himself an active citizen, the one who believes that his opinion can and should influence certain decisions, takes part. Knowing our realities, the obligation to vote [Обязаловка] always gives the opposite result.”  She confirmed that the ballot will give voters the freedom to say yes or no to the entire package of constitutional amendments; these remain to be finalized next month in the State Duma.

The popular vote is now scheduled for Wednesday, April 22, the first national poll to be held on a week day instead of Sunday, which has been required by statute until now.  The date is the 150th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth. Government officials have explained the choice of date is to avoid Orthodox Easter Sunday, April 19, and the start of Ramadan on April 23. They haven’t mentioned that the Passover holiday is safely out of the way for Jewish voters between April 8 and 16.

Since not voting is also a free expression of voter will — a vote of no confidence in the yes/no option — Pamfilova’s response indicates that the Kremlin continues to be concerned at the likelihood that on April 22 turnout will be less than 50%. 

In the referendum to approve the existing constitution, held by President Boris Yeltsin (right) on December 12, 1993, reported turnout was 54.4%; 58.4% voted in favour, 41.6% against. For the constitution to be approved, the turnout threshold required by the law at the time was 50%. The narrowness of the margin for validity was subsequently disputed.

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