Presidential Elections: To Raise Turnout, Kremlin May Propose Changing City Names, Sources Say

A year away from the presidential election, the Kremlin’s technocrats are scrambling to find the best way to handle Vladimir Putin a landslide victory and could use “local referendums” to motivate Russians to vote.

Supporters of the president fear voter’s apathy –expressed in last year’s parliamentary elections by a 48% turnout, the lowest the country has seen in its modern history– could give Vladimir Putin a weak standing in what would be, according to the Russian constitution, his last term as President.

To prevent this, Moscow is now contemplating holding local referendums on “non-political issues” on election day to push the population to go out and vote, according to sources in the Presidential Administration quoted by pro-Kremlin daily Izvestya. The gubernatorial elections that will be held in a handful of Russian regions this September could represent a first test, with referendums centered on the questions of returning city names to their imperial-era equivalent. The newspaper gives the example of Kirov, a locality 1,000 km East of Moscow that could potentially be renamed Vyatka, its name until 1934.

Politically-charged names such as Kaliningrad/Königsberg or Volgograd/Stalingrad will not be considered, according to the sources, for fear of sparking an uncontrolled political debate and give a platform to the Communist opposition. Each “mini-referendum” could raise turnout by 2-3% locally, Izvestya writes.

The scheme, which hasn’t been officially confirmed and may in fact have been “leaked” to test the waters, is the latest in a series of attempts to ensure that Vladimir Putin wins next year’s election with a comfortable margin. The “70/70” figure has been mentioned in Russian media as an unofficial objective for the Presidential Administration: 70% of votes for Vladimir Putin amid a 70% turnout, without resorting to the use of “administrative resources”, that is, electoral fraud. Vladimir Putin recently declined to say whether he will seek relection next year, though most experts believe he will be candidate.

Other ideas the Kremlin has played with, according to Russian media, include mobilizing Russian state companies’ vast resources for the campaign; replacing the aging leaders of the so-called “systemic opposition” (such as the Communist Party) to make for a more stimulating competition; and holding sports contests and talent shows on election day. Moreover, the decision to hold the election on the anniversary date of Crimea’s annexation has been interpreted as a way for the Kremlin to attach the election to what is considered by Russians to be Putin’s main achievement in recent years.

The case of Alexey Navalny and his participation in the election is also hotly debated, between those in the Kremlin who would like to use the opportunity to crush the opposition politician in an election, and those who fear the consequences of giving him a national platform.

The goal, if he was to be allowed to participate, would be for Navalny to be deemed a credible opponent but still lose badly to Putin. A balancing act, and a dilemna between political stability and need for reform behind it, that seem to apply to most policy proposals surrounding the presidential campaign: writing about the possibility of holding referendums to boost turnout, Izvestya wrote that “this theme of plebiscites should have resonance, but not so much that it would divide society.”

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