June 19, 2024

It might seem like a huge distraction at the height of a full-scale war, not to mention a logistical nightmare: holding a presidential election as Russian missiles fly into the Ukrainian capital and artillery assaults reduce whole towns to ruins.

But President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has not ruled it out. His five-year term ends in several months, and if not for the war, he would be preparing to either step down or campaign for a second term.

Analysts consider the possibility of wartime balloting a long shot, and under martial law, elections in Ukraine are suspended. Still, there is talk among Kyiv’s political class that Mr. Zelensky might seek a vote, with far-reaching implications for his government, the war and political opponents, who worry he will lock in a new term in an environment when competitive elections are all but impossible.

The debate over an election comes against the backdrop of mounting pressure on Ukraine to show to Western donors Ukraine’s good governance credentials, which Mr. Zelensky has touted. Opponents say a one-sided wartime election could weaken that effort.

A petition opposing a wartime election has drawn signatures from 114 prominent Ukrainian civil society activists.

A new electoral mandate could strengthen Mr. Zelensky’s hand in any decision about whether to commit to an extended fight, or insulate him if eventual settlement talks with Russia dent his popularity and hurt his chances of re-election later.

Mr. Zelensky has said he favors elections, but only if international monitors can certify them as free, fair and inclusive, and he has outlined multiple obstacles to holding a vote. Political opponents have been more categorical in rejecting elections, which before the Russian invasion were scheduled for March and April next year, saying the war was creating too much turmoil to properly conduct a vote.

“The first step is victory; the second step is everything else,” including a revival of domestic politics in Ukraine, said Serhiy Prytula, an opposition figure and the director of a charity assisting the military. Opinion surveys regularly rank him in the top three most respected leaders in the country, along with Mr. Zelensky and the commander of the military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny.

Mr. Prytula, a former comedic actor, had set up an exploratory committee to run for Parliament before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, following the path from show business to politics taken by Mr. Zelensky, who had played a president in a television series before winning the presidency in 2019. For now, Mr. Prytula has halted all political activity during the war. The office he had rented for the parliamentary run is now a headquarters of the charity.

The Biden administration and European governments supporting Ukraine militarily have not weighed in publicly on an election. But the idea garnered wider attention when Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said the country should go ahead with a vote despite the war.

“You must also do two things at the same time,” Mr. Graham said on a visit to Kyiv in August. “I want this country to have free and fair elections, even when it’s under attack.”

To hold elections, Ukraine would have to lift, at least temporarily, martial law in the case of a vote for Parliament or amend the law in the case of a vote for president.

Mr. Zelensky has cited as a major obstacle the need to ensure that Ukrainians living under Russian occupation can vote without retribution. “We are ready,” he told a conference in Kyiv last month. “It’s not a question of democracy. This is exclusively an issue of security.”

The Ukrainian leader has said online voting might be a solution.

Among the states of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine is the country with the largest population to have succeeded in transferring power democratically. Its criminal justice system has been riddled with corruption, and the privatization of state property has been mismanaged, but elections had been consistently deemed free and fair by international monitors. Ukrainians have elected six presidents since gaining independence in 1991.

“Ukraine’s commitment to democracy is not in question, and being forced to postpone elections due to war doesn’t change this,” said Peter Erben, the Ukraine director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a pro-democracy group funded by Western governments.

Ukrainian politics have revolved around parties formed by prominent personalities rather than policy positions. There is Fatherland, led by Yulia Tymoshenko, the most prominent woman in Ukrainian politics; the Punch, led by Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv and a former boxer; the Voice, led by Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a rock star; and Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, named for a TV show.

Military veterans are widely expected to play an outsize role in Ukrainian politics when elections resume, as voters and as candidates who could challenge the current political class.

Holding an election before the war ends could lock in seats for parties in Parliament now, including Mr. Zelensky’s, while soldiers are still serving in the military and unable to run for office.

“A scheduled election isn’t necessary for our democracy,” said Olha Aivazovska, the director of OPORA, a Ukrainian civil society group that monitors elections. There is no means now for refugees, frontline soldiers and residents of occupied territory to vote, she said.

An election in “the hot phase of the war” would almost certainly undermine, not reinforce, Mr. Zelensky’s legitimacy, she said.

Even those who favor an election cite concerns about a potential consolidation of power. Oleg Soskin, an economist and adviser to a former Ukrainian president, has called for elections despite the war, warning that Mr. Zelensky could otherwise usurp authority under martial law. But that is an outlying view in Kyiv. Most of Mr. Zelensky’s political opponents have refrained from being overly critical of him during the war, but they say a vote now would be unfair.

“I understand the government wants to maintain its position while ratings are high,” said Dmytro Razumkov, a former chairman of Parliament in the political opposition. Mr. Zelensky’s chances of victory, he said, “will almost certainly be lower after the end of the war.”

An election now would only weaken Ukraine as politicians campaigned, competing with and criticizing one another, said Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Parliament from the opposition European Solidarity party. He has advocated for Mr. Zelensky to form a national unity government that would include members of the opposition.

“It jeopardizes the unity of society,” he added.

Public opinion surveys have consistently suggested that a prospective challenger to Mr. Zelensky in future elections could be the commander of his army, General Zaluzhny. As a serving military officer, he is barred from participating in an election during the war.

Mr. Zelensky still consistently leads in surveys of leaders whom Ukrainians trust. A recent poll by United Ukraine, a nonpartisan research group, showed 91 percent of Ukrainians trusted Mr. Zelensky, 87 percent trusted General Zaluzhny, and 81 percent trusted Mr. Prytula.

Polls have also shown high support for Mr. Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv; Vitaly Kim, the head of the civil military administration in the southern region of Mykolaiv; and Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council.

Mr. Prytula’s charity has boosted his national stature during the war. It draws donations from millions of Ukrainians to provide drones, body armor, rifle scopes and other supplies to the army at a time when activities supporting the army are immensely popular domestically.

Mr. Prytula said he was focused solely on keeping Ukrainians united behind the war effort. Holding an election now, he said, would be pointless because Mr. Zelensky would all but certainly win.

“He is No. 1,” he said. “Our society supports him.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.

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