July 15, 2024

When Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a fake vote to extend his mandate in March 2024, Ukraine will not be allowed to hold an election due to the martial law imposed amid Russia’s aggression.

This won’t suddenly make Russia more democratic than Ukraine.

If Russia had not invaded Ukraine, it would be scheduled to hold a parliamentary election on Oct. 29, 2023, and a presidential one on March 31, 2024.

However, martial law, which was introduced when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, makes this legally impossible.

Some Western commentators have urged Ukraine to find a legal solution and hold elections regardless of the war. They argue that this way, Ukraine would prove that it is a democracy.

However, there are many obstacles that would thwart an election during the full-scale war.

Such an election would pose huge security risks, and millions of voters abroad, internally displaced persons, and soldiers on the front line would be unlikely to vote.

“Is it worth paying the price of endangering citizens for Ukraine to conduct elections?” Harald Jepsen, a senior advisor at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), told the Kyiv Independent.

An election during a full-scale war is also unlikely to be democratic and competitive due to restrictions on free speech and other civil liberties. Moreover, it would likely cause a rift in society that may jeopardize Ukraine’s war effort.

Experts argue that it may be possible to hold an election if the conflict subsides and enters a low-intensity stage. Yet, there’s little prospect of that happening before March.

Growing calls for elections

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration and the European Union’s leadership have not made any statements pushing Ukraine to hold elections during the full-scale war.

However, some Western politicians, officials, and commentators have touted the idea.

In May, Tiny Kox, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, urged Ukraine to hold “free and fair elections.” He did not specify when Ukraine would be expected to hold them.

“There are problems because as long as you have martial law, your constitution does not allow you to have elections,” he said. “So, you have to find a solution. If you don’t do it, then the question comes from the table. What did we defend in this war of aggression that Russia has called against us?”

Later, Kox clarified his statement.

“As long as martial law is there and your constitution is as it is, there will not be elections,” he said. “But at a certain moment, there will be elections. And my advice is to start preparing for it as soon as possible.”

U.S. conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson, who has repeatedly voiced pro-Russian views, made a more radical statement in June.

He accused President Volodymyr Zelensky of canceling the elections to create a “dictatorship.”

U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has a pro-Ukrainian stance, also made a statement on Ukrainian elections in August.

He said that “it is time for Ukraine to take the next step in the development of democracy, namely to hold elections in 2024.”

“I want this country to have free and fair elections, even when it’s under attack,” Graham said.

He said later that “elections would not only be seen as an act of defiance against the Russian invasion but an embrace of democracy and freedom.”

Ukraine's response

Zelensky responded to Graham’s statement in August, saying that “according to the legislation, it is forbidden to hold elections.”

However, he appeared to leave the door open for potential legislative changes.

“My answer is very simple: if our parliamentarians are ready, because then we need changes to the legislation, to the Electoral Code, we need to do it quickly,” he said.

Zelensky said that Ukraine would not be able to finance elections, which he said would cost around $135 million, and added that only the West could pay for it.

“I will not hold elections on credit. I will not take money from weapons and allocate it to elections, either,” he said.

Later in August, Zelensky also said he would run for a second term if elections were held in 2024.

Meanwhile, Ruslan Stefanchuk, speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Olena Shuliak, head of the governing Servant of the People party, and Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, have all said that it was impossible to hold an election under martial law.

Illegal wish

The Ukrainian constitution stipulates that the authority of the country’s parliament must be extended until the expiry of martial law. However, the constitution does not contain similar provisions on presidential or local elections.

The constitution also explicitly prohibits any constitutional amendments during martial law.

In contrast, Ukraine’s law on martial law explicitly bans presidential, parliamentary, and local elections during martial law.

“The constitution does not exclude presidential or local elections,” Jepsen said. “It’s only the law on martial law that prevents presidential or local elections during martial law.”

The only legal way to hold elections during the war would be to either cancel martial law or amend the law on martial law to remove the ban on elections.

However, canceling martial law would be dangerous because it could dismantle the legal framework necessary for the war effort.

“(Canceling martial law) doesn’t remove the challenges,” Olha Aivazovska, head of election watchdog Opora, told the Kyiv Independent. “International observers wouldn’t come to Ukraine, and mobilized conscripts would be able to go home.”

International standards

Supporters of holding an election argue that Ukraine must do so in order to maintain its democracy.

But, opponents of the idea say that suspending elections during a full-scale war is in line with international standards.

“Nothing in the international standards says that you have to conduct elections during war,” Jepsen said. “Quite the contrary, if you look at the Venice Commission, they say it’s fully allowable to extend the mandate of parliament, even advisable.”

Jepsen also said that the idea of suspending elections during wartime has precedents in European history.

“This is perfectly normal in the European context that during an all-out war, you don’t conduct elections,” Jepsen said.

One of the major examples cited by experts is that the U.K. and France did not hold any elections during World War I and World War II.

A counter-example would be the U.S., which held elections during the Civil War and during its participation in both World Wars.

However, a key difference with Ukraine was that there was no foreign invasion of U.S. territory in all these cases.

Risks and challenges

The main risk for an election cited by experts is potential Russian attacks.

“A single bomb or rocket can remove the possibility of carrying on with elections,” Jepsen said. “What happens if Russia upscales its attacks, and you have to cancel these elections, and they are seen as a failure?”

Another common argument used by opponents of holding an election in 2024 is the fact that it will be hard for millions of Ukrainian refugees to vote.

Aivazovska, Jepsen, and political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko agree that it would be a major problem.

According to Ukraine’s Center for Economic Strategy, 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees were in Russia in late June, and between 4.3 million and 5.4 million Ukrainian refugees were based in Europe and other foreign countries.

First, experts say there will not be enough polling stations for so many refugees.

Second, voter registration will be a major problem both for Ukrainians abroad and for internally displaced persons in Ukraine.

“There is no reliable data on the whereabouts of voters abroad,” Jepsen said.

Aivazovska also said that it would be impossible for candidates to campaign in the European Union during the election.

It would also be difficult for soldiers on the front line to vote during the full-scale war due to security risks and their military tasks, experts say.

Aivazovska also argued that a competitive and fair election would be impossible during the full-scale invasion because of restrictions imposed on the freedom of speech under martial law.

“Martial law was introduced to enable the state to restrict certain rights of citizens,” Jepsen said. “It will be difficult to conduct elections because elections are about the freedom of opinion, freedom of movement, and the safety of candidates.”

Another common argument is that elections during a full-scale war would lead to disunity and disrupt Ukraine’s war effort.

“This will contribute to a split at a time when the nation needs to stand united against the common enemy,” Jepsen said. “Elections are about differences. Parties will inevitably start the narrative that ‘we are better than the others.'”

Fesenko agreed that elections would lead to “an internal split” and would not be safe during the full-scale war.

Postal voting

Several solutions have been proposed as a way to solve the problems of a potential wartime election.

One of the solutions is postal voting because it would mitigate security risks and allow more Ukrainian refugees, internally displaced persons, and soldiers to vote.

“Ukraine doesn’t have experience with postal voting, but it’s one of the options,” Jepsen said.

He added that postal voting was used in countries of the former Yugoslavia after the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

However, critics say postal voting may lead to electoral fraud or lower trust in the elections.

The latest example is accusations by former U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters that widespread postal voting in the 2020 U.S. presidential election led to voting fraud. There is no evidence backing up the accusations, but they led to low trust in the election outcome among the Republicans.

Aivazovska said that, according to opinion polls, few Ukrainians trust postal voting.

Electronic voting

Supporters of holding an election in 2024 have also proposed electronic voting to ensure a safe election during the full-scale war.

However, experts say that such a step would be problematic.

“The many offers of modern technology could certainly be used during elections,” Jepsen said. “But it’s premature for Ukraine to go the full way and start using the Internet for voting in national elections.”

An electronic voting system has to be tested and takes years of development, he added.

Aivazovska also said that electronic voting is a major “cybersecurity risk,” and it cannot guarantee the secrecy of voting.

Estonia and Switzerland have used electronic voting, but it was introduced there after many years of testing.

Meanwhile, Denmark and the Netherlands have decided not to use electronic voting because their societies were not ready for that, Jepsen said.

The most negative illustration of the dangers of electronic voting is Russia, where elections are regularly rigged. In 2021, evidence emerged that electronic voting had been used to rig the parliamentary election in Moscow.

Low-intensity conflict

Despite the problems, most experts believe that an election may be possible if the war becomes a low-intensity conflict.

One commonly cited parallel is Ukraine’s 2014 presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. They were held after Russia launched an invasion of the Donbas but the conflict remained on a much lower scale than the current all-out war, and no martial law was declared.

“If the conflict goes down in intensity, it’s technically possible,” Jepsen said.

He argued, however, that this would become possible if there are security guarantees for voters and if many more Ukrainians return home from abroad.

“It also depends on how much territory Ukraine will have liberated,” Jepsen added.

Fesenko and Aivazovska also said that it would be possible to hold an election if the war enters a low-intensity stage.

“This will be possible when there is security and when restrictions on the work of mass media are removed,” Aivazovska said.

Potential election results

Ukrainian media outlets RBC Ukraine and Novoye Vremya reported in September, citing their sources, that the Zelensky administration had not yet made a final decision on holding elections in 2024. The sources said that it was still a possibility.

Zelensky’s spokesman Serhiy Nikiforov could not comment on the issue.

Fesenko said, however, that the authorities were unlikely to hold an election in 2024 if the public opinion was against it.

“Zelensky’s peculiarity is that he acts according to the public opinion,” he said.

If elections are held next year, the results may be favorable to Zelensky.

Fesenko argued that Zelensky “has a high rating and may win in the first round” if an election is held.

According to a poll released by the Razumkov Center in July, 81 percent trusted Zelensky, while 71 percent trusted Mykolaiv Oblast Governor Vitaly Kim, and Serhiy Prytula, a TV presenter, actor and volunteer helping the army, had a 55 percent approval rating.

Ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko had the highest disapproval rating: 78 percent did not trust her. Meanwhile, 76 percent distrusted pro-Russian politician Yury Boiko, and 71 percent did not trust ex-President Petro Poroshenko.

Only 23 percent of Ukrainians supported replacing Zelensky as president after the war, according to a June poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Zelensky’s approval rating rose significantly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. His extraordinarily high popularity is attributed to his association with the war effort.

“The war consolidated the president’s rating,” Fesenko said. “It’s the rating of resistance. The popularity of the institutions associated with resistance has risen – the Armed Forces, National Guard, and the president.”

He said that the opposition is hoping for an election after the war because the population is expected to be more critical of Zelensky then.

Meanwhile, Zelensky’s Servant of the People party is less popular than the president himself. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 69 percent of voters support replacing the majority in the Verkhovna Rada when the war is over.

For Zelensky, this could be an argument against holding elections in 2024, according to sources cited by RBC Ukraine.

But Fesenko believes there would likely be a re-branding: instead of the Servant of the People, there might be a Zelensky Bloc comprising several parties. Most Servant of the People MPs are unlikely to run in the new election, he added.

Much depends on whether Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the highly popular commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, would create his own party.

If Zaluzhnyi launches a party, it may win in the election, and the Servant of the People may be the runner-up, Fesenko said. But Zelensky’s party will likely win if Zaluzhnyi doesn’t run, he added.

“Zelensky’s party may get an absolute majority,” Fesenko said.

However, the ratings of Zelensky and his party may fall as war fatigue sets in. There is speculation that Zelensky’s legitimacy may be eroded if there is no election for a lengthy period.

“People are realizing that the war won’t be over soon,” Fesenko said. “Critical sentiment is growing.”

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